What I love about India are the children....and their mothers. Their faces tell a story untold...a way of life vastly different than I could ever pretend to understand. The children are full of curiousity, life, love and vigor. Such youthful bright faces with wise eyes. Their mothers are protective, serene and strong.
In the Wodeyar tradition (Maharajas of Mysore), the final day of Dasara ends with a magnificent procession (called Jumboo Savari). The procession begins inside of the Mysore Palace and makes its way through the city.
Several hours before the parade got started hundreds of people were already sitting along the road, with many areas blocked off. As an eager spectator and my first time to Dasara, we had purchased "GOLD CARD" seats inside of the palace. It was no joke finding our way by foot to the palace. The streets slowly became a crazy maze of people, animals and vehicles. Unfortunately, we started off in the wrong direction and ended up running around the palace (a good kilometre) to get to the ‘main’ entrance for "GOLD CARD" members. The fastest way to get thru the crowd was to join the traffic by running down the middle of the road (not something you tell your mother). When we arrived at the gate we huddled like cattle behind the iron fences with all the other card holders; our gold status was rapidly diminishing. Finally after being pushed and shoved sideways and backwards we made our way to the next queue, and into the palace.
Meanwhile this sort of event brings out the worst in yourself as well as those around you. I became very irritated and angry and started yelling at my companion to run faster as well as to push himself thru the crowd so that we were not separated.
When we got to our seats, we were quickly approached by hungry reporters who wanted the foreigner's veiw on Dasara. Given my mood and the events that had taken place to get there, I blew my shot at getting on live-radio and my name in the Indian Express. Had I told the reporters how magnificent it was, how wonderful to see the elephants, etc., etc., it would have been published news for sure. Today the headlines read, “and the homemakers were mesmerised” (The Times of India). Instead, my comments were on the people shoving, pushing, crying and fighting. I was not pointing my finger at Indian society as you would find the same thing at a rock concert in North America or at Carnival in Rio. I suppose I found myself thinking about what really takes place; i.e., the 7-10 day journey the elephants make to get to Mysore as well as the poor living conditions of the villagers who maintain them. The truth, however, is not newsworthy.
Yet I am no better than that of which I complained about. I was also amongst the lakhs (100,000's) of people who came out to watch the procession and who pushed their way thru.
Locals told me you have to experience this at least once in a lifetime. However, if this experience has anything to do with "organized chaos" then my memory lies more in being lead astray by police officers, jumping fences and barricades to get to our “assured" seats, and becoming desperate to get inside of the palace. It has less to do with the pagentry of this great event.
Still, I guess can say, “I attended Dasara.”
There is a good zen saying (well, there are actually many great zen sayings), but this one is particularly relevant to the teacher-student relationship. It reminds us as students to empty ourselves if we want to learn from a teacher. The zen phrase states it beautifully by using the image of a tea pot and a cup. The tea pot is the teacher and the cup is the student. When the teacher teaches they pour out their knowledge and into the student. If the student's cup is empty they can receive the teachings. However, if their cup is already full they cannot receive anything and the tea (re: knowledge) is wasted.
The trouble, however, with many 'good' sayings is just that. They sound good, but are hard to follow. It can be relatively easy to believe that you are open-minded and that there should be no problems with learning under a 'new' teacher. And yet when in a 'real-live' teacher-student situation one may find that this is not ex-actly the case. One may feel very resistant to everything the teacher says and/or how they say it.
Last Friday, Yogacharya offered a talk on how it is important to be open to the teachings. He said that he cannot teach us if we are closed; there is nothing he can offer. But how do you become open? What does it truly mean to be 'empty'? Is it really possible given the hundreds of thousands of ideas and impressions we carry with us from all of our experiences? How can we truly become open?
Years ago in the time of 'true' Masters and Gurus, it was very common for the Master to provide lessons in humility (re: lessening pride, ego and arrogance) as well as testing the sincerity of the student. Many swamis such as Swami Rama and Vishnu-devnanada describe the lessons they received in humility from their Master. Today, I think this type of teaching is dead. In fact, if many yoga teachers to test or to treat their students in a similiar fashion they would probably find they had no students. I really feel, however, that many of these lessons were important in order for the student to progress. Without them they would have at best remained the same or at worst regressed. Today many of these lessons have not been well understood by Western students who sneer at the austere practices of the Master or consider it "bullyin". We just don't understand what it means to surrender ego. Some people even take offense from the word, "surrener". But the fact is we live in a totally different time, context and era....
Teaching is a 2-way street; something that should be kept in mind. Essentially the more open one becomes the more one can learn and receive the teachings.
Today during class Yogacharya instructed 3 of the students undergoing the AtmaVikasa Teacher Training program to hold a posture. He said, "Hold it until I tell you to come out". A few seconds later one of the students gave an instruction to her fellow collague. A few seconds after that Yogacharya asked her, "Why are you telling the student what to do? Did someone give you authority? Am I not here?"
This was followed by a few defensive comments by the student in question. Yogacharya lost his patience and told the her, "Roll up your mat. Your practice is over." This was also followed by a few more defensive comments including one of the students jumping to the rescue of the accused. Yogacharya continued, "When I tell you to stay in a posture, you stay. If I give you the authority to talk then you can talk. Otherwise you have no such authority in the class."
The student rolled up her mat and left.
I know as a teacher it can be very tempting to want to say something to another student especially if you see they are doing something incorrectly and/or you feel your suggesstion would benefit them. But why? Really? I know, as well, when one is undergoing a training program it can feel good to be able to spread your wings a bit by applying what you know. One of my students did this to me while she was undergoing a teacher training program I was running at the school. Not only was it not her place to do so, but the instructions she gave to her fellow student was incorrect.
Overall, these are good lessons in understanding that:
1) it may only be your ego wanting you to tell another person to do something, which should be saved for your own classes (if you are a teacher) and,
2) when you are a student in a class enjoy being a student and do not mix your roles.
There is also another good zen saying:
When walking just walk,
When talking just talk,
When eating just eat,
And when sleeping just sleep.
This also relates to the role of the teacher and the student. When you are a student be a student, with the mind of a child. When you are a teacher be a teacher, with the mind of a student.
It's pretty straight-forward.
This post stands-alone because it highlights the entire approach that Yogacharya is offering.
During my first class, Yogacharya explained how I was practising to reach the mind thru the body. Now, I will learn to practice how to reach the body thru the mind. And he stated:
"Maybe...this time...you will learn something."
During my first class, Yogacharya explained how I was practising to reach the mind thru the body. Now, I will learn to practice how to reach the body thru the mind. And he stated:
"Maybe...this time...you will learn something."
This year's practice includes the 2nd series of AtmaVikasa yoga, a series that Acharya developed consisting of 30 postures. The overall sequence contains 2 versions of the sun saluations, standing postures, sitting postures with various combinations of the lotus including kukutasana and parvatasana. The closing sequence also involves an intermediate series of the lotus in shoulderstand and headstand.
Throughout my classes with Yogacharya I have been given many comments, suggestions and commands. After my first class I was not able to complete the full sequence within the 2 hour slot. I had some concerns about how to sequence the postures (re: what to leave in, what to leave out). The next class, however, Yogacharya told me, "Pick 2 postures. These will be the ones you practice for the rest of the time here."
It's amazing to reflect on the array of attitudes that grew inside my mind from such a simple statement. This year would involve no elite back bends and coming out of class drenched in sweat; having given it my all! I wondered if I would become bored. I also wondered if I could manage holding postures for 20 minutes; maybe longer if required. I did not feel deprived by his recommendation (re: in the sense that doing less would also equal to receiving less). Even if you have your doubts, however, following the lead of the teacher is a lesson that gets repeated if you want to learn. I have learned this lesson every year from Yogacharya.
Right now, my own practice has done a full circle. I began in 2000 only learning the sun salutations (a series of 11 postures) for 1 hour. One year I spent the first 2 weeks only practising conditioning exercises. What hell that was for me and my ego. I already had done the primary series of Ashtanga under Pattabi Jois and knew a few advanced asanas. This really felt like moving backward and not forward. I felt extreme resistance to the simple wrist, neck and leg exercises. However, I was really surprised when I found that these concentrated exercises were more difficult than some of the advanced postures I had learned.
Over the years with Yogacharya, the individual asanas (postures) were gradually and slowly added. Slowly is a key word. In the years that followed the routine got more demanding and the sequence changed as my practice evolved. To date, I feel I have "maxed" out my body potential. There is a inner need to learn something deeper beyond asana practice....which as far as I can tell can become more like ass-anna practice!
Below is a brief description of the some of these classes thus far:
Today one of the pictures in the shala (school) fell down during shavasana (resting). I was the only one startled by it and looked over to see if it had fallen on the woman beside me. She was, however, completely oblivious; resting peacefully in the corpse pose.
After the prayer Aharya told me, “See you have some fear...”
"True." I said. "I thought it was falling on someone."
He smiled brightly and said, "When something falls down it is related to bad karma. And even if it falls on you then it’s okay.....Even if a bomb was beside you, its’ still okay. Let it come. Death is fantastic."
Today's lesson: You can not escape Death. Embrace, welcome and relax with it.
While holding the forward bend lotus posture (ardha baddha padma-pashchimottanasana), I came out earlier from the left side. Yogacharya told me to hold each of the postures the same length. This particular morning I was only aware of the severe pain travelling up my right leg.
"Watch the breath and not your body. Observe the nature of the pain," he said as if I should have known this already.
Ahhhh, to know is one thing...but to practice is quite another. And come to think of it I was telling myself this while in the position....
It is easy to zone-out and to see how the mind can become very complacent after holding the same posture for 10 mintues. It is also easy to see how conditioned the mind is to activity, sweating, working hard....and labelling this as yoga. What is yoga then? What is yoga-asana?
During this practice Yogacharya told me not to go for the final position. "Don’t even bother. Concentrate on the process. Concentrate on the breath. Watch your thoughts, feel your body and then you might get an idea of what yogasana is."
He walked away.
For 2 hours I practiced the sun saluations (simple yoga postures) and 2 rounds. This process teaches a lot about patience, the process, becoming mindful of the breath, feeling the body and watching both the mind and the body. Initially I wondered if I would get bored. Surprisingly enough boredom is the last thing which has visited me. How the mind wanders, the lack of awareness of the breath, how it’s easy or rather a habit to move the body and not think of the breath, how it’s a habit to want to get to the final position....are many of the observations I have made. Of course, I could say I was always learning this indirectly. However, holding postures for no more than 5 breaths will not break down your mental wanderings. One of the most interesting aspects to this process is watching how the mind when doing something it feels it knows and understand is automatically assuming many things. It's an interesting experiment to approach the sequence on the basis as Yogacharya said, "You don't know anything. You only think you know."
At the bus station the gruff calls of "My-sur, My-SUR, MY-SUR!" sound more like an auctioneer's call for the final bid than it does for the bus into the quaint city known for its sandalwood oil, incense and silk saris. From Bangalore to Mysore its a mere 125 Rupees ($2.50 CDN) for the semi-deluxe bus. Cheap. Very cheap by North American standards when you consider it's at least a 3-4 hour journey. Mysore is such a lovely city to be as it still possesss an old-world charm. So far the growing population has not ruined it with Mysore's population increasing by 20 per cent increase from 1991 to 2001. A census conducted in 1931 showed there were just over 100,000 people. Today, there are about 900,000 people.
It's always funny talking to any local as one of the first things they will remark upon is how easily you can get around. It's not like Bangalore, which has about 6 million people! But Delhi and Mumbai they say is "too much crowded." I learned recently that Mysore holds the largest number of Indians who were not born here as compared to other cities. It's sort of interesting when you probably assumed that everyone is from 'here'.
I first came to Mysore in 1999. I visited the zoo, roamed around the Maharaja's Palace (royalty of India) and witnessed the 90,000 lights that came alive from the palace. Every Sunday from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. the palace becomes a glowing array of lights for one hour. During my brief 3 day visit, I did not know that Mysore was the home of many famous yoga teachers, the most well-known being Shri K. Pattabi Jois. I also never imagined I would continue to return to this city after meeting Yogacharya Venkatesh in 2000. Funny, too, as for years I was saying the name incorrectly. Many local people showed me their pride by shouting at me, "My-sur". But with so many different accents and helpful people, I grew confused as to whether it was My-sur, My-sir or My-sore! Many yoga students have simply stuck to My-"s-o-r-e" and for obvious reasons. Last year, the department of tourism officially changed the name to My-su-ru! This seemed to make things easier, but I have yet to hear anyone refer to it as such.
Right now is a very exciting time to be in Mysore because on Friday, September 18th the Dasara fesitval will begin; a 10-day fesitval that commemorates the victory of good over evil, light from the dark, knowledge from ignorance and bliss from sorrow. There are performances and processions that mark this very special time. Probably one of the biggest event is the last day when the 4900 kg gold "howkah" (seat of the Maharaja) is placed on the back of an elephant. During the festival there are also nine rituals performed that are understood to break the attachment to the body and the mind; bringing forth the divine love of the mother (also known as Navaratri).
The daily scene, however, appears the same as usual. This photo is typical of the Indians who are busy with their mobile phones. Here they call it the "handy". It does not matter if they are driving a scooter, walking along the street or talking amongst friends, everyone seems to be on their handy. If you have any problems, for sure, they will know how to resolve it. Very savvy 21st century crowd.
Two weeks ago I arrived in India. On the same day that I got into Mysore city I also had a meeting at 8 a.m. with Yogacharya Venkatesh. It is customary to visit the teacher first before starting the classes. These discussions while brief have usually consisted of Yogacharya's two famous questions: “How’s your practice?“ and “What do you want to learn this year?” Since 2000, I have been studying under Yogacharya and as far as I can recall his questions have never changed.
It was a speedy ride from the Bangalore airport into Mysore. My driver, Ravi, told me we would probably only arrive at 9 a.m. “Hmm, not good,” I thought. So I asked him, “Can you drive a little fast?” “Do my best,” said Ravi and off we went into the bumper to bumper traffic at 5:30 a.m. with the classic horn blowing during the entire drive. As the road gods would have it I arrived at 7:55 a.m.! I waited outside of the shala (school) for Yogacharya to appear.
No smile. No gesture. No expression. Only a slight nod from Yogacharya as he opened the gate. “Hello,” I said fumbling to place my hands in prayer position. "Come." "You sit," he replied. Yogacharya placed a woolen mat on the marble floor for me to sit on while he sat across from me. Next came the familiar us questions.
Yogacharya listened intently as I rambled on about being consist in my daily practice but also experiencing several body pains during the year. Yogacharya told me that whenever you practice very intense and advanced asanas many difficulties will arise due to the alignment. When the alignment is not perfect many problems will arise. Unlike many other years, however, I did not have the same deep desire to continue to push the edges of my asana (posture) practice. I felt as though I have reached the summit (for now) and needed to go in a different direction that is deeper and beyond the physical mastery of the asanas. I had already started to feel that no matter how many asanas I practiced, learned or how many new levels I encountered there remained something within me that was unsatisfied. The pain-staking evolution of time and practice had revealed to me that while the impossible is possible the body is truly limited.
The three most important things from pratice as Yogacharya described them are:
3) Inner faith.
The interesting thing is how each of these are tied to each other. Devotion only arises from practice and faith only comes from having devotion. Both are lost and cannot be developed if practice is not consistent.
Usually I have looked to Yogacharya to advise me if I should be doing a deeper program on meditation or asana practice or both. I can never figure out why I do this because Yogacharya’s position has always remained the same. That is, he has never tried to influence me one way or another by telling me what to do. He may recommend something, but never points to it as being an absolute. Instead, he has like a true Master does reflected back to me my current state and reaffirmed to me that I, indeed, know.
This time is no different. I decide to focus more on meditation, pranayama and only the second series of AtmaVikasa. I will miss the advanced asana practice of backbending, but there are lessons in detachment and this is one of them as far as I can tell. I also feel that sometimes you have to leave something completely in order to come back to it later with a fresh and clear mind. I will still practice on my own and it will be a better test anyway in terms of my own discipline.
In Yogacharya's teachings there are 10 sequences of the AtmaVikasa yoga system. He has only taught the second series to a few foreigners. We agree this year to focus on the second series, which is a similar format to the primary series of Ashtanga, but without the vinyasas. Postures are held from 20 to 30 breathings (sometimes more) with a focus on the internal alignment to stabilize the body and mind.
“Come to practice on Monday”, Yogacharya tells me. And our meeting comes to an end.
Getting settled in India happens fast. Within just a few hours of arrival not only have I set up my classes, but I have done the following:
-Gotten a scooter;
-Had the money changer drop-by;
-Bought necessary toiletries (i.e., sandalwood soap, detergent, hair oil);
-Arranged for a head-massage;
-Had a wonderful breakfast of papaya, bananas, pineapple and curds;
-Cleared the room of its furnishings except the bed and;
-Received calls from my friends asking when I will come for dinner.
Life is good and I am ready to begin classes on Monday at 5 a.m.
This year the schedule looks like this:
5 a.m. to 7 a.m. 2nd series AtmaVikasa
8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Meditation
10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Bhajans (chanting)
3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sanskrit and sutra class
In between there is self-practice and consultations with Yogacharya.
The Journey So Far
Life is an adventure and yoga is the greatest one of all. Here I share my love of Yoga, travel, practice and becoming a part-time cook. My life adventures have taken me from growing up in Toronto to living and working in South Korea to studying in India, marriage and finally closing my Yoga school of 15 years.
What I can say so far is that I truly believe that it is necessary in life to let go of one dream in order for another to be born. This might be painful to do so but it is the only way to move forward. We often believe that if our original plan does not succeed it is the recipe for failure. But what if it is the door to something new and great? The horizon is wide and life is not a straight line. This is the way I see it and my journey so far. Having also recently given birth to my first child and at 43, it is another new beginning.
- Heather Morton
- is a perennial teacher and devoted student of yoga. Having made 18 extended trips to India she studies with her teachers annually. In 1997 she founded and directed The Yoga Way (TYW), Toronto's only school for 6-week yoga programs and not drop-in classes. For 15 years, TYW was a part of the growing Toronto yoga community and supported many charities by offering karma classes. As a teacher she holds many academic degrees including a BFA (Fine Arts in Theatre) and a Masters of Education. With a published thesis on Yoga for Children in School, her post-graduate work was a 2-year ethnographic project in the Indian school system. Heather has produced 2 dvds, meditation cds, a backbending manual and podcasts. Freedom of the Body DVD is the first of its kind as an instructional practice to the backbends of yoga. Heather has been featured in the Toronto Life magazine, The Globe & Mail, Yoga4Everybody and other on-line sources. She contributes to MindBodyGreen, Hello Yoga in Japan and Elephant Journal. She writes to inspire and share her experiences with others on yoga as a life's practice.
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