Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Sharath: more questions than answers.

If I were to sum this post up in a few sentences it would go like this; on Sunday I took a led class with Sharath, and although I got all the way through full primary the experience wasn't quite what I expected it to be and left me with some pretty big questions - about places to practice, and about how an Indian tradition is interpreted for a western audience.

All ashtangis (and probably a lot of yogis) will know exactly who I am talking about, but for anybody who doesn't know, Sharath Rangaswamy is the director of the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (AYRI) in Mysore in India, a position he took over following the death of his Grandfather Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in May 2009. And of course, Mysore is the focal point for ashtanga yoga, and Pattabhi Jois (or Guruji as he was known) was the grandfather not just to Sharath, but to this style of yoga itself. He is widely credited with having brought yoga to the West, and many thousands of students (both from India and around the world) studied with Guruji in Mysore over the 70 plus years that he was teaching. But enough of the history lesson.

The level of anticipation I had about taking this class was huge - and I mean huge. Having been introduced to ashtanga in March 2009 by J and H, two wonderful teachers who had been given Guruji's blessing to teach, I had learnt the importance of the lineage of this practice, the direct handing down of teaching from Guruji and Sharath to authorised yoga teachers. For this reason, after a failed early experiment with an unauthorised teacher (at a cheap & convenient yoga centre) I now study in London with a teacher I love who is also blessed by Guruji to teach.

Of course I saw the opportunity to take this class with Sharath as being the direct line to ashtanga in it's purest form, and for all I know could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to practice with him. So I put aside my huge fears, my concerns that after only 5 months of ashtanga I wasn't ready, and that as I usually only practice up to navasana (about half way through the primary series) that I would get stopped by Sharath, not to mention the worries about how I would get into central London for 7am on a Sunday, when by happy coincidence I managed to get a place.

Now I should say at this point that I grew up being told that if you look forward to something too much, it is bound to be a disappointment. Having followed this maxim for all of my childhood and much of my adult life, I have tried in recent years to embrace the optimism which sits rather more comfortably with me. So I looked forward to the class with great excitement, and was sure that the energy of the group would carry me through the whole series even though some of it was unfamiliar to me. Having travelled to Europe to revisit my teachers J&H three months after I first met them in India, I had already experienced the energy that incredible teachers can create and which takes you through a wonderful, powerful practice from the first breath, so it was this in particular that I was looking forward to.

So with all of this background, I am almost afraid to admit to how I felt during and after the class. Honestly? On the face of it, I found the led class a little underwhelming. Although I really don't know what I was expecting (although the mental dialogue went a little like this: "It'll be amazing! You'll have the best practice EVER! Everything will just magically come, and you'll be headstanding in the middle of the room for hours and floating into jumpbacks like David Swenson"), I know that I didn't quite get what I anticipated out of it. True, I completed the full primary series, I wasn't stopped at any point, and I didn't fall on my backside during Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana - with my leg in half lotus - as I did on the workshop with J&H in Antwerp...(I bounced). Mind you I did nearly land on my face in my first over-enthusiastically floating vinyasa which would have been quite a way to start the class!

Other than this near miss there were no disasters, but also no triumphs - and notably, no adjustments from Sharath. In fact, I was surprised by how few adjustments he did throughout the class. Having watched films of him and Guruji taking led classes on world tours before, Guruji would do the count while Sharath scuttled around the room adjusting somebody on every count, and more often than not his Mother Saraswati was adjusting too. This time it was just him on his own, so he was concentrating on leading the class, although I was a little distracted when I realised that the man behind me had at least three or four adjustments. The funny thing is, in the run up to the class I was hoping that I got lots of adjustments, and because I got there so early I was right up the front with Sharath mainly in front or beside me for the whole class, I was actually willing him to keep away from me. I was so worried that either he'd touch me and I'd cry, or that he'd push me too far and it would hurt me, that I probably sent him enough stay away vibes to ensure he steered well clear.

I want to make it really clear that none of this to be taken as a form of criticism of Sharath personally, or of the system of Ashtanga yoga. I feel to a certain extent that the stage I am getting to now is a healthy one of discovery. When I arrived in Goa in February 2009 knowing nothing about ashtanga yoga, and nothing about yoga itself outside of weekly asana practice, I learnt all about this incredible man and his family lineage, and despite some difficulties adjusting to some of the ideas (which I'll write about another time), in terms of Guriji and Sharath I accepted everything as a child would - unquestioningly. On my return to London, and my further research into the world of ashtanga both through a new teacher and extensive reading online, I began to hear some criticisms of the practice, and even of Guruji himself (and that was from the teacher - needless to say, not somebody I continued to practice with) which I just could not accept. But my feelings during and after the class this weekend led me onto thinking about a couple of things.

Firstly, I think the space had an enormous amount to do with the 'energy' you get during your practice. Thinking about the shala where I first studied in India, it is constantly filled with people getting on their mat with great sincerity & pure intention; it's filled with unshod feet, quiet voices and some of the finest teachers in the world; it feels to me that it has become a sacred space. It doesn't get used for discos and wedding receptions or church fetes on off days.

And at AYL, my London shala of choice, it's the same situation. It's filled on a daily basis with ashtanga practioners working their way through their practice, and the first time I ever practiced there it just felt so so right. Contrast it with the places I have been to with the same teacher which weren't dedicated shalas, and something just doesn't click. I wondered initially if it was to do with size of the room, and the bigger the room (and further you are from the incense!) the lesser the feeling, but that argument doesn't work when I think about the large shala in Goa. So instead I come back to the idea that somehow all of the practicing, chanting and meditating that goes on in the space somehow charges it with this incredible energy. In fact when I went to J&H's Antwerp intensive where a friend has just started teaching a few classes a week in an empty space beneath a photographic studio, there was the most powerful feeling of that connection and energy that I've felt so far - which either had to be down to the space, to J's chanting for an hour in there before we began, or perhaps it's a straight-forward teacher-student connection which of course I didn't have with Sharath having never met him before.

And the class on Sunday was in a large civic centre no doubt used for all types of functions, packed with people, and although everybody talks about the incredible energy when you practice with Sharath, I got - well, not nothing exactly, but not much. Maybe because I was at the front, I wasn't packed in with people on all sides, maybe all sorts of things, but it just didn't feel like I thought it would. I wonder though whether this will feel different by the end of the week of workshops, primary followed by intermediate every day, which if my "charging up" theory holds any weight, it should.

The other thing I have been really wondering about, is the westernisation and western interpretation of Indian ideas, and how in some ways it seems that the very few words spoken in English by Guruji or Sharath are taken and built upon by western teachers and turned into something beautifully written, or spoken, which speaks to you and affects you when you hear it. Actually though, the memorial piece written in Yoga Journal last month quoted Guruji's direct words to many famous teachers and they made me cry, but of course that's not what you get in a led class.

This is all part of a much larger philosophical debate I started having with myself. Again I want to stress that I'm not making any judgements here, and I'm certainly not criticising anybody or losing any faith in the system or those who have set it out in Mysore, but I do think it's inevitable that I would eventually move from the unquestioning acceptance that I began ashtanga with and begin to intellectualise it a bit. To be honest I'm still just trying to make some sense of my feelings in the class, and how flat I felt - whilst at the same time feeling I don't want to admit to it for fear of seeming less than a proper ashtangi.

I think what it comes down to is that whilst yoga is a spiritual practice which works on turning your thoughts inwards and quietening the mind, what I miss with the Mysore self-practice system is those short-cuts to feeling amazing. It's those moments when the teacher says just the right thing and suddenly you're filled with the sense of persisting peace that I love, and that kept me coming to yoga classes before I started ashtanga. And perhaps this was what I was looking for on Sunday, not the physical practice but the direct line to the soul that J&H seem to have with me. What I got instead was a focus on the physical practice, but I realise that I have now overcome my long-held fear of moving on beyond navasana. Most importantly though, I realised that in the face of my confusion and trying to make sense of how I felt during the class, I didn't freak out. Yes I have written a very (very) long analysis of it, but I seem to be starting to rid myself of the drama addiction that would in the past of turned this into "oh my god! the class was a huge let-down, what am I going to do now?" and have instead treated it quietly and calmly as another interesting step on the path.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Story time.

"Yoga is about letting go of your own story of yourself", so says my wonderful teacher J.
True as that may be, everybody has a story, and more precisely, every yogi has the story of how they began. Often when you read the website of a great teacher, they will talk about how they were working in this industry or that industry (usually film/music/advertising - the more hectic and less spiritual the better) when this practice "found them". That may be dismissed as bunkum by the general population, but the further I go with my journey on this path, the more I begin to think that there is a design, and that it cannot be mere chance that led to where I am now.
So how did I come to be throwing myself so whole-heartedly into this new lifestyle aged 31? It's not like yoga is completely new to me. I took my first class at 18, and for the year between finishing school and starting University my best friend and I met in the local leisure centre on a Wednesday night for an hour and a half of stretching. The best part was the final relaxation (a luxurious half an hour) where the un-yogicly named Debbie (who also had rather un-yogic spikey hair from what I remember) would talk us into a state of complete bliss, so much so that I feared for my friend having to drive me and then herself home. The teacher explained the meaning of the greeting "Namaste" and every practice finished with this exchange, and a deep bow to the ground which I took with me into every class I attended ever since.

I tried and failed through the years that followed to find a class that I liked. There was the man in my University city who made me feel uncomfortable from the second I arrived (I think I was a minute late and he crucified me in front of the whole class - bad manners yes, but hardly the appropriate response); the lady at the sports centre near my first London flat who talked about nothing but ovaries and fertility, and then about two years ago I started going to a class at my local gym. It was a fairly easy hatha class, the type that probably the majority of once-a-weekers would experience in church halls and gyms around the country: some light stretching, nothing too challenging, with a final relaxation before you floated home feeling sleepy and relaxed, all to the back-drop of some spiritual sounding music (though this may have been there to drown out the pumping R&B and sound of grown men grunting in weight-lifting-effort that floated in from the gym). In the time I took that class there were four different teachers with varying styles along the same theme, but I tried to go every week and I enjoyed the new feeling I got when I bent to pick something up, a new opening around my hips, as well as it helping me to feel more relaxed. And I loved downward dog with a passion, I'd have happily stayed in it all day (I still feel the same - this is the special treat to reward for your efforts in Suryanamaskara A & B).
I enjoyed the class so much I wanted to try doing more that once a week, so I started going to a weekend class also at my gym, and found a much tougher, more dynamic class - ashtanga, or so I thought (I later discovered it was actually a dynamic hatha class - but possibly from the Sivananda school). After a few false starts something clicked with the weekend class, and at a time when my life was in great turmoil, I had a eureka moment one Sunday afternoon. This teacher was more spiritual, it was clear that yoga was his life, not just something nice he thought he might teach. After our final relaxation we would sit cross legged, eyes closed, heads bowed, and at that moment of great peace he said "If you can keep this feeling inside you, nothing can touch you". Click - I have no idea why, but this was it. I had an overwhelming sensation of peace, I felt unstoppable, I was incredibly relaxed but felt powerful too - and the feeling lasted for days. I became a regular at both classes, though the midweek class then changed to Iyengar which I really struggled to enjoy - now it was all about the "ashtanga". Life continued to throw some bumps into my road, but I carried on going to classes when I could, and as I lay on the floor in my relaxation I remember thinking I always want to be doing this. I could picture this being the start of my life including yoga: pre and during pregnancy, with children, as an old lady, I always want to be taking classes and giving myself this time to devote to yoga. It's hard to look back on how I felt without colouring it with what I know now, but I do remember feeling this very strong desire to have a lifelong relationship with asana, and the deeper I go with my practice, this feeling has just grown and grown.