alan little’s mysore diary – january 2002

Thursday 3rd January

Happy New Year. A quiet week, with not much to write about except what goes on in a Typical Mysore Day, which might be of some interest to those who haven’t been here - if only as an eye-opener regarding just how little the average yoga student actually does once they’ve been here a few weeks and the excitement & novelty have worn off.

I get up around 4:30, in time for a few gentle warming up exercises for my knees & hips before I head down the stairs and down the road to the shala about quarter past five. A few minutes sitting on the stairs watching the first group (4:30 start) finish their practice, then I’m on my mat about 5:30. I’m still really enjoying watching people practicing; it’s something I rarely have a chance to do at home, and there are so many people here with really beautiful practices. I’m currently about 4th or 5th in the 5:30 group, so dangerously close to having to practice at 4:30 if just a few more people leave, unless a few more long term advanced students arrive and save me by getting put in the early group ahead of me. This has been a hard week practice-wise, but no more days quite as dreadful as Monday - I never seem to have two *really* bad days in a row, thank god. I’ve generally finished my practice by about 7 or 7:30, and things have been so quiet the last couple of weeks that there is usually only a handful of people still waiting on the stairs when I finish. New people already starting to arrive in the last couple of days, though, and I expect after the 20th it will start to get busy again very quickly.

After practice it’s off round the corner for a coconut - essential post-practice rehydration - followed by chai (sweet, strong milky Indian tea) and biscuits across the road at BB’s chai stall - essential post-practice socialising. Generally always the same group of people here, as we practice in pretty much the same order and finish at about the same time every day. Sometimes very photogenic early morning light in this part of the day; today was not great light, and windy & bloody cold. Sweaters, fleeces & shawls all round.

That’s Breakfast Part One. Breakfast Part Two follows some time later and is preceded by going home to shower and wash sweaty yoga clothes. At the moment I have a sore knee, so showering is preceded by rubbing ayurvedic pain-relieving oil on my leg, on Guruji’s advice. This has to stay on for at least half an hour, thus providing an ideal excuse for a pre-shower nap. Unfortunately it seems to be working, so excuses for pre-shower naps could soon become harder to find. Breakfast Part Two is then the first big decision of the day - do I feel budget-minded? (cook porridge at home), Indian-minded? (go to Mahesh Prasad, the only restaurant in Lakshmipuram and thus popular with yoga students, for dosa or idli) or sociable? (go to Mandala cafe or Magali & Ortario’s)

After breakfast, before or after lunch, is the time for actually doing things - shopping, internet, making travel arrangements, doing classes. Lots of people do classes in things like sanskrit, musical instruments or dance. I’ve been doing some cookery, and might start sanskrit when I come back in February. A lot of people hang out at the pool at the Southern Star hotel, but pool hanging-out isn’t really my thing and my first time there wasn’t an especially positive experience, so I don’t go very often. For lunch I generally go to Auntie’s. Her food is great; up until a couple of weeks ago there were usually loads of yoga students there, but lately it’s been very quiet and I’m developing an unhealthy interest in naff Hindi daytime soap operas badly dubbed into Kannada.

Later on in the afternoon I generally have three options - wait for the light to get interesting again and go and stalk the streets with a camera; be super-conscientious and do some more asana practice in the attempt to loosen up my hips and make my knees more injury resistant; or go to Guruji’s five o’clock conference. I’m not conscientious enough to go to conference every day, but I try to make it a couple of times a week. Sometimes there are long awkward silences; sometimes somebody asks a question he’s interested in and he says lots of interesting and informative things. In which case I try to remember some of them and put them in the diary. But either way, I’m getting to love just being around the guy, and definitely understand why the long-term students keep coming here year after year.

Whatever the late-afternoon activity was, afterwards it’s time for something light to eat - a couple of chapatis with some dal; some soup; salad & fruit. Not too much, don’t want to feel heavy at practice in the morning - but not too little either: at one point I was eating very little in the evenings and I was just losing weight and getting weak. Some evenings, drive over to the Three Sisters for a pineapple lassi; that was a good social spot a while ago but again, not at the moment because there are so few students around and those who are here have been here a while and are settled into a quiet life in their apartments. So sometimes just read or listen to music for a while, more oil on the knee, and bed some time between 8 and 9 at the absolute latest (see paragraph two, “I get up around 4:30”).

Today may be my last Typical Mysore Day for a while - Guruji finishes teaching for his puja and holiday break on Sunday, and I’m off to Kerala for a break from the Mysore scene. I may or may not find time and cyber-cafes to write more diary entries while I’m there; even if I do, it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll find anywhere as excellent as Dishnet where I can actually maintain my site properly. So any updates that do appear might be temporarily on my miscellaneous links / weblog page. Normal service will be resumed when I’m back in Mysore some time before the 20th.

Friday 4th January

Visited the Hoysala temple at Somnathpur. Lovely place. Not quite such amazing sculpture as at Halebid - it seems to me to be a little less intricate and not quite so immaculately preserved, although that could be just because today I’m not seeing it for the first time - but it’s more intimate & peaceful. It’s also handily close to Mysore, and therefore a favourite venue for clichéd yoga-asana-in-front-of-temple-sculpture photographs. So of course we do some of those.

The others want to go home and drag me away when I’ve barely started my fifth roll of pictures of the sculptures. But I’ve known for years that serious photography isn’t the most social activity. I can easily come back another day if I really want to, and meanwhile today was a thoroughly fun day out with excellent company.

Saturday 5th January

watching the countryside go by on a misty morning Bangalore - and I’ve realised that every other time I’ve been here, I’ve been *rushing* to try to get things done in time to drive back to Mysore before dark. Whereas today, having decided to miss the afternoon train and go back in the evening, I’ve discovered that it is actually possible to relax and have fun here. Remembering that I actually enjoy things like hanging out at Prabhu’s photo lab, talking to other photographers and playing with the latest state-of-the-art Nikon scanner (oops - potentially dangerous fit of expensive techno-lust); or sitting in cafes drinking good cappucino (yes, this really happens in India - Baristas, Brigade Rd), looking at contact sheets and reading the papers. Which is reassuring - you can do those things in Europe too, so maybe life back home will be bearable. Far too soon to be thinking about that though.

Am delighted with my pictures of Honey Valley and Sravanabelagola. First roll from Somnathpur yesterday is good too.

Bloody cold on the 6:45 train on the way here, but I sit with the window open all the way nevertheless. I’ll have more opportunities in my life to be warm, than I will to sit on an Indian train watching the countryside go by on a misty morning.

Sunday 6th January

The Germans call sitting with crossed legs Schneidersitz, “tailor’s seat”. Indian tailors don’t generally sit on the floor these days because they have sewing machines, but today walking through the tailors’ quarter in Mysore I saw a guy sitting on the concrete step outside his shop in gomukhasana, looking like he could be there for hours quite comfortably. Which I certainly couldn’t.

Monday 7th January

Nilgiri Hills Bus from Mysore to Ooty - my first venture into the scary world of Indian long distance bus travel. I pay my 60 rupees, which wouldn’t get me across town at home, and they drive me a hundred miles, into the next state and up to the top of a big spectacular mountain range. All in only mild discomfort, and by means of what feels, from inside the bus at any rate, like perfectly safe and responsible driving. Brilliant.

I go for a walk into town and decide not to take a camera with me, so of course the place is really photogenic. Am fascinated watching the silversmiths in the bazaar, soldering using oil lamps and blowpipes. I did some silversmithing at school but we had gas torches (and I never graduated beyond copper and brass onto actual silver) - I’ve never seen it done the traditional way before.

Tuesday 8th January

Ooty High Altitude Yoga Training Camp, Day Two.

It’s hard work practicing here. Cold - despite doing extra sun salutations and wearing a teeshirt and leggings instead of my usual Mysore shorts, I’m barely sweating by the end of the standing sequence. And I think I’m feeling the altitude a little - Ooty is at almost 2500 metres. Yesterday when I got off the bus I had a slight headache for a while just walking around town, and today I get out of breath doing sun salutations.

Wednesday 9th January

Kochi train. Lying on the top bunk of a compartment with a broken fan, semi-comatose in the Kerala heat, and the song snippet the Inner Jukebox chooses to run over and over again through my head is Patti Smith singing the chorus of Because the Night. Which I don’t think I’ve heard for almost twenty years. Yesterday it was Son of a Preacher Man, the day before the opening of Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog. Good songs, all of them, but why?

Thursday 10th to Saturday 12th January

Kochi - reflections on Trying To Be A Tourist.

I had heard good things about Kochi, so I thought I would spend a few days here doing the whole Tourism Thang - staying in posh hotels, looking in antique shops, the works. My conclusion? Being an upmarket tourist is an amazingly effective way to make time go away without noticing anything much happening, and sort-of-ok for a day or two, but I think I’m just basically not suited to it.

To start with, I decide to splash out and stay in 50-buck hotels, the Old Courtyard and the Fort Heritage. These places are majorly expensive and posh for India (even though there are places in India where you can spend well over a hundred bucks a night, and even though 50 bucks is less than half what I was paying for a grotty little basic room in Greenwich Village when I went to Guruji’s workshop in NY). And the rooms I have to admit are very nice indeed - big, high ceilings, old wooden floors, antique rosewood furniture - even a four-poster bed in one case. And air conditioning, which I switch off so that it’s nice and hot for doing my yoga practice. And cable TV. But. The atmosphere makes me uneasy. The staff are polite and efficient, but more subservient than genuinely friendly ... unlike, for example, the 200 rupees a night Cavery Lodge in Mysore which genuinely is a nice place, even though the physical surroundings are nothing much. There’s also a serious lack of places to eat in Fort Cochin apart from the hotels, and some of the places I try - which seem to be popular with the tourists - are really pretty bad. This is part & parcel of having a lot of passing-though trade, I think. The places yoga students go in Mysore, like Auntie’s and the Three Sisters, are dependent on repeat business and word of mouth, so quality matters to them (quite apart from them being genuinely nice people who care about what they do anyway). In a place like Fort Cochin on the other hand, once somewhere is in Lonely Planet they’ve got it made and they don’t have to give a damn any more - and in some cases it shows.

Lots of interesting things to look at, though, when I’m not busy admiring my hotel rooms, watching cable TV in English or enjoying doing my yoga practice in the Kerala afternoon heat on 300-year-old teak floors. One of the most fun places to spend time walking and taking pictures is the old bazaar in Mattancherry. Fascinating things going on, plus the added bonus of no sales hassle because it’s a wholesale market - even the most optimistic & motivated Indian salesman is unlikely to see me as a potential customer for a truckload of ginger root or a length of ship’s anchor chain. Also the antique shops in Mattancherry, where I manage - but only just - to convince myself that I probably can lead a full and satisfying life without a pair of seven foot teak columns. No matter how much of a bargain they are. I know where I’ll be going shopping the next time I need to furnish an apartment, though, and it won’t be Ikea. Then there’s the famous mural in the Dutch Palace featuring Lord Krishna, the flute and the six young ladies.

Matancherry bazaar
Matancherry bazaar

Chinese fishing nets, Kochi My one serious attempt so far to take a tourist cliché photograph - the Chinese fishing nets at sunset - turns into a teeth-gritting exercise in frustration and futility. I walk out onto one of the nets to get a better angle on the others, and have just got my tripod set up when a local comes out and engages me in conversation. Turns out he is the owner of the net on which I am trespassing without permission, so it’s a fair cop. He’s nice about it and I buy him a beer afterwards. Then some bloody American tourist - who obviously fancies herself as knowing something about photography but equally obviously actually doesn’t otherwise she would know better than to disturb another photographer during the precious ten minutes of good Indian sunset light - decides this is a good time to strike up a conversation about my camera. "Oh, what kind of a camera is that?". "It’s a Fuji 690 and as you can see I’m trying to take pictures with it right now if you don’t mind". "Does it use 120 film?". "Well it would if I had chance to use it at all instead of answering f**cking inane questions about it". And the net platform, which looks at first sight like a nice solid wooden structure, is actually made out of light, springy bamboo and palm trunks, so what with fishermen and (other) bloody tourists strolling about on it, the whole thing is vibrating so much that the chance of an even approximately sharp picture is pretty much nil. What’s more, on the way to the fishing nets I walked past a chance of a genuinely *good* photo, of local lads playing cricket on the green in the evening light.

Which all just goes to show that you shouldn’t attempt to take tourist cliché photographs.

Sunday 13th January

Backwater boat trip from Kochi, then bus to Kottayam. I take back all the things I said a week ago about the ok-ness of Indian bus travel. If you don’t know the meaning of fear, a Kerala bus driver certainly won’t be able to explain it to you - but he will probably be able to arrange a practical demonstration!

Two weeks travelling starts to feel like not much. The bus passes through a pleasant-looking little town right by Vembanad Lake, with a beautiful temple tank and next to it an interesting-looking place signposted "School of Traditional Temple Arts". Would have been nice to hop off and explore for a while. Kottayam, on the other hand, turns out to be a dump - that’s what comes of having travel plans and sticking to them.

Monday 14th January

I was planning to spend another day or two travelling slowly through the backwaters, but the depressingness of Kottayam makes me realise that I’ve been travelling on my own for long enough now, and time is ticking away - I need to travel back to Mysore on Friday, classes start again on Sunday. So I jump on the next train to Trivandrum, to go and see how many yoga friends ’n’ acquaintances I can find at Lino Miele’s workshop in Kovalam. Loads, as it turns out.

But first, I do my practice in my glacially-cold air conditioned hotel room. And am delighted to discover in such poor conditions that I can do marichy d quite well, when two months ago I could barely imagine doing it at all even in the best possible circumstances.

The journey to Kovalam is really pleasant and so is arriving there. The countryside the train passes through, especially between Varkala and Trivandrum, is beautiful - backwaters, miles and miles of coconut trees and peaceful little villages under the trees. Another area it would be nice to spend some time exploring if I hadn’t already decided to be on my way to somewhere else. But Kovalam is pretty too. I got a bit fed up the last time I was here - it’s so touristy & westernised, so much hassle from salespeople all the time, the constant all-pervading swampy bad-drainage smell. But coming back, the things I notice are that despite all that it is still really pretty, the sea air is clean, lots of people remember my face and say hello. I book into a perfectly good and cheap room right next to the yoga shala, then go for a walk and within a couple of hours have run into at least a dozen yoga acquaintances - including Lino and Gwendoline, who say I can attend classes for a few days even though they’re really busy. It’s nice to go to sleep to the sound of the surf instead of the sound of Mysore traffic.

Tuesday 15th to Friday 18th January


A very pleasant few days in Kovalam - excellent yoga teaching followed by days spent swimming and hanging out in beach cafes with old friends and new acquaintances. The more I study with Lino, the more I like his teaching (I think this is the 5th or 6th time). Gwendoline and the other assistants are great too. I’d like to spend more time studying with them. But I’m not sure if I could deal with a month of this place - spending the entire day hanging out in beach cafes is ok for a while, but I have the feeling it would get boring beyond a certain point.

Sunday 20th January

Back in dear old Mysore and back to school. Stiff practice this morning.

Guruji will be having cataract operations in the next couple of weeks. He is trying to avoid cancelling classes, so the plan is to get one eye done this Friday, recuperate Saturday and teach again Sunday. Same again with the other eye a week later. Apparently the operation is routine and pretty trivial, but even so I wish he would allow himself more recuperation time; he seems to be determined to teach until he drops.

Sharath’s baby was born about a week ago - a healthy eight pound baby girl, and her father and great-grandfather both seem very happy.

Carl is back in Australia, and has some very interesting reflections on the differences he saw in Mysore between this visit and his first a few years ago.

Monday 21st January

“Annie Grover, straight your arms!” (galavasana). Nice to know even überastangis get shouted at from time to time; also that Guruji can still spot a bent arm the other side of the room even with cataracts. God help us poor sinners when he can actually see.

Tuesday 22nd January

Arrived early for practice this morning and spent some time watching the 4:30 group (which I am mercifully not in - yet). Beautiful. There are four people in there doing advanced series - lovely to watch Joanne & Darby going through Advanced A (3rd) side by side, and Annie (Grover) Pace doing Advanced B (4th) – Marichy H looks particularly heinous & scary. Other people in the room doing primary and intermediate beautifully too.

I, meanwhile, have still not finished primary and am getting frustrated being stuck at badha konasana. Fatherhood has not mellowed Sharath with regard to giving people who are struggling with their practice a break. For which I’m sure I’ll be grateful to him in the long run. Meanwhile, will have to think of some kind of drastic action, and take it. At least this surely means Guruji can’t let me in the 4:30 group, where I would be like a donkey at the Grand National. Not that this matters, I try to tell myself - yoga is not a competitive sport. “No superiority, no inferiority, just do your best”, as Mr Iyengar says.

Wednesday 23rd January

Hours spent sitting in badha konasana yesterday whilst (a) having sanskrit class, (b) cleaning camera lenses, (c) reading book of Tom Wolfe essays I bought in Bangalore on the way back from Kerala at the weekend : two and a half. It hurts, so something must be happening.

Thursday 24th January

Change of plan regarding Guruji’s cataract operations - he *should* have had the first one today at 2 o’clock (it’s now 6 o’clock) - can’t confirm this as obviously no afternoon conference today. He was ill and didn’t teach yesterday morning, but was at conference yesterday afternoon and took class this morning, so hopefully he’s recovered enough for the op to go ahead as planned.

Thankfully, he has now decided on a more sensible schedule with a reasonable amount of rest. Sharath is taking tomorrow’s and Sunday’s classes, and Monday is full moon, so Guruji is resting until at least Tuesday. I only hope he will be equally sensible next week when he gets the other eye done.

On a lighter note: I was having breakfast with some of Mr Sheshadri’s students this morning, and one of them said that everybody here has so much time on their hands that they have four books on the go at once. A yoga book, a non-yoga non-fiction book, the novel they think they ought to be reading, and the novel they are actually reading. Nonsense, I said, I have a full and active life. (And the only books I’m reading at the moment are: one by Desikachar called The Yoga of Health, the Tom Wolfe essays, The Brothers Karamazov and The Stand by Stephen King. Er…).

Friday 25th January

Guruji’s cataract operation went well yesterday and he’s resting, according to Sharath who taught class and ran the five o’clock conference today.

Conference was fun - Sharath brought his shiny new laptop and showed us video clips of his daughter, and of himself doing a demonstration in New York last year. I am more and more impressed with Sharath. I used to wonder why people had so much respect for him and regarded him as Pattabhi’s heir apparent, when he’s only 30 and there are senior western teachers who have been studying advanced ashtanga with Pattabhi Jois since he was a small child. In some ways he’s still very boyish - show him a nice gadget or a fast motorbike and he lights up.

But in other ways, he really does have a lot of confidence and authority about him. And it shows at the times that matter - most obviously, when he’s actually adjusting students. He has the most sure and confident touch of any teacher I’ve ever known, and he’s not afraid to stand up to Guruji when he has his own opinion about what a student should or shouldn’t be doing. The last couple of days too, when Guruji has been off and he’s been running the classes, he’s clearly been completely on top of the situation. I see the respect some of those senior western teachers who’ve known him since he was a child - Annie, Joanne, Darby - have for him now. And at conference today - he likes to laugh and joke and be one of the lads, but then somebody asks him a serious question - how do I get to be able to do those floating jumpbacks like you do, Sharath? - and gets a serious answer - it’s simple, you just build your entire life around your practice and work hard at it for eleven years.

Somebody asked him if he regrets the time he spent in his teens studying electronics and not practicing yoga seriously. He says no (even though if he had studied continuously he probably would have finshed the all the advanced series including sixth by now) - he always knew one day he would come back to yoga.

I’m a lot less worried now about the future of ashtanga teaching when Pattabhi retires, than I was before I came here and got to know Sharath. I don’t think he’s fully come into his own yet - I’m a firm believer in Jung’s theory that nobody really does before about the age of 35 or 40 - but he’s already pretty impressive.

Saturday 26th January

One of last week’s more interesting beach cafe conversations in Kovalam was with a yoga student called Sinead, who back in the “real world” is a press photographer working for the Times. Only the second photojournalist that I’ve had a chance to talk to since I got seriously into photography myself. We got to talking about photojournalism, art, and whether it’s moral to take beautiful pictures of horrific things, or to care whether such pictures are beautiful or not. One of Sinead’s experiences of this was a Kurdish demonstration outside an embassy a few years ago in London, where a woman set herself on fire as a protest against the treatment of Kurdish prisoners. And her reaction, as a press photographer covering the event, wasn’t “oh my god that woman just set herself on fire”, it was “oh shit, that woman just set herself on fire and here I am with a wide angle lens on when I need a telephoto”. Not wanting to have to think like that any more led her away from doing reportage, and these days she’s doing more features & fashion work.

But, we concluded, it is moral to take those kind of pictures - after all, the Kurds were doing what they were doing to draw people’s attention to their cause. And if you’re going to do take pictures of it, you should do it well because if a picture doesn’t have quality and impact as a picture, nobody will look twice at it and then you haven’t drawn anybody’s attention to anything.

I just got round to looking at Sinead’s website today. She has some interesting pictures there.

Some more discussion of these issues in this interview with the brilliant Time Magazine / Magnum war photographer James Nachtwey, and this discussion about the work of Sebastiao Salgado - “apparently, some critics think that his photos are too aesthetically pleasing for his subject matter”.

Monday 28th January

Full Moon Day, so no practice and I had planned to get up early and drive out into the countryside to take some dawn pictures; but I was at a party last night until *quarter to twelve* - I think my latest night ever in Mysore, including New year’s Eve - so it didn’t happen. Gradually my life-in-Mysore priorities become clear: yoga practice before everything, but then socialising before Art. Which I suppose means I’ll never be another Henri Cartier-Bresson; but in my deep heart of hearts I think I knew that anyway.

I have yet another new roommate, Christina’s replacement Nicole having moved out at the weekend. She went purely for financial reasons and not in any way because I am the roommate from hell, as three roommates in as many months could lead people to assume. Roommate Number Three is Janice, an old friend from Manchester who just arrived from Kovalam; it’s really nice to have a familiar face around the place, and also to be able to speak normal English at home instead of always having to make allowances for Americans, Londoners & other foreigners. Janice


Tuesday 29th January

Guruji was in class this morning, modelling a rather interesting “Brahmin Blues Brothers” look in white lunghi, white teeshirt and ray-bans, which he has to wear for a week following the cataract op. He is in good spirits, and the operated-on eye looks fine. Sharath did some major telling-off when he tried to adjust somebody - once again my opinion of Sharath goes up a notch.

The February population explosion is happening - last week was still pretty quiet, but at least 20 new students must have arrived at the weekend including a big gang from Lino’s workshop in Kovalam. Nice to see some familiar faces from my Kerala holiday, but it really changes the atmosphere in the shala just when I had got used to peaceful times.

Wednesday 30th January

After three months, I still see little things that make me excited about how exotic being in India is. Today I was walking to the Mahesh Prasad restaurant for dinner, and an ibis flew past and landed in a palm tree. I thought "wow, that must be an ibis. I’ve never seen one of those before. I’m in India. Isn’t it exciting?"

Gillian, one of the other students in my sanskrit group, pointed out something that I agree with and find interesting (obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t write about it in my diary) - which is just how widespread all kinds of knowledge and beliefs about holistic health and folk medicine are here. Everybody is their own doctor to some degree, and is also quite willing to pass out healthcare advice to yoga students. It’s not just Guruji, although he certainly has plenty to say about diet and how to deal with health issues and injuries. Beg the coconut man carefully starts new yoga students off on relatively unripe coconuts with thin watery milk, and builds people up progressively onto riper coconuts that are sweeter and more oily. (I noticed when I first arrived that other people seemed to be getting "better" coconuts than me, but it wasn’t until quite a bit later that Dr Beg told me this was all part of his grand plan). From time to time he also tries to persuade us that going across the road for chai immediately after we have our morning coconuts negates the whole benefit of the coconut milk and is a really bad idea. We carry on doing it anyway. All my cookery gurus - Tina, Auntie, Harini - seem to see cooking almost as a branch of medicine. They talk constantly about what foods are easy or difficult to digest, what herbs and spices help with the ones that are hard to digest, what people should eat when they are ill or recovering. Auntie wouldn’t let me have curd rice for weeks after I had fever in December, because cooling foods are bad when you have fever - best to keep the body warm and sweat it out. Mainstream western cooks in my experience talk and think mainly about how things combine from a gastronomical perspective. Of course there’s some awareness these days of things like olive oil and some kinds of fish being good for the heart, but it’s nowhere near the sophisticated ayurveda-influenced food-as-medicine point of view that people who take cooking seriously in India have.

Now, clearly the Indian people I have a lot of dealings with are the ones who spend a lot of time with yoga students, and for westerners yoga students are unusually health- and diet-conscious people, so it’s not surprising that such things get talked about. Nevertheless I do think what I’m seeing is a general difference between Indian and western attitudes to health and medicine. Indians in general have a far sounder attitude to holistic health than we have. I’m sure this kind of folk wisdom used to exist and be just as widespread in Europe and America too, but it’s been almost killed off by a couple of hundred years of industrialisation, urban living and increasing access to technological, quick-fix medicine. To the degree that some kind of holistic health awareness is starting to creep in to modern western cooking, it’s mostly rediscovery of half-forgotten folk wisdom that existed in Mediterranean peasant diets. Whereas in India, quite possibly the folk wisdom was more sophisticated to start with, and certainly it never died out. It couldn’t, because thankfully over a hundred years of British attempts to teach Indians to dishonour and forget their traditions ultimately failed. Indians had and still have much less access to technological medicine than westerners so they had to hold on to their traditional knowledge.

I’m not blindly anti western medicine. For dealing with some things - mostly life-threatening acute problems - it’s the best or the only thing around. But it’s useless for a lot of other things and it tends to have the extremely bad effect of encouraging people to think that they can relinquish responsibility for their problems into the hands of "professionals", that they can get techno-chemical quick fixes to all their problems rather than go through all the effort and hassle of understanding what’s wrong and changing their behaviour.

Major stair chaos brewing in the shala again this week. The 6:30 group was already full last week, then at least 20 people arrived at the weekend and Guruji told most of them to come at 6:30 too. So long queues right now, although eventually it will sort itself into some sort of order. Mostly just honest misunderstanding, although there is also the usual handful of pushy individuals deliberately coming way too early. I had to ask some people who were waiting in the finishing room to go out onto the top stairs instead, and was v.proud of myself for being assertive instead of just trying to do my finishing whilst silently resenting the disturbance. They didn’t mean any harm, they had all just arrived in Mysore and the room was almost empty at the time - the 4:30 group had gone and the 5:30 group had only just started coming upstairs.

Thursday 31st January

Finally. Upavista konasana yesterday - the great badha konasana logjam has broken. Spending over a month stuck at one place in my practice has been an interesting experience. It has led me to some reflections, and some interesting conversations with my fellow students, about the effectiveness of the teaching method here and why it is *the* right way to teach this kind of yoga.

I was within sight of the end of the primary series and I thought my troubles were over after marichy d and garbha pindasana, so then to be stuck again was very frustrating. There’ve been days when I’ve thought I’m obviously so bloody hopeless and unsuited to doing this stuff, I might as well just go home and take up knitting. And I’ve been thinking a lot about how disappointing it would be to go home after 4 months in Mysore without finishing primary series. Would I be the only person ever to do that - the most hopelessly stiff ashtangi of all time? I’m probably safe from that dreadful fate now, which is nice, but going through the whole experience has forced me to evaluate just what I’m doing here and what my practice means to me. I’ve had to face how difficult it is to simply accept that I am where I am, and to *really* believe that achieving outward progress isn’t what it’s about. It’s easy enough to claim to believe that at times when you are actually achieving outward progress.

The emotional/psychological/spiritual implications of facing up to being "stuck" are the most important learnings here. After all, they are one of the main things that doing a difficult asana practice is supposed to be about - whereas being able to get your body into difficult and cool-looking positions certainly isn’t. But also, probably nothing else would have forced me into weeks of doing two or three hours a day - in addition to normal practice - working on hip openers. I know that I can do a reasonable badha konasana now, which I couldn’t a month ago. If Sharath had decided to go easy on me after Christmas and let me carry on with a poor b.k. - as every western teacher I’ve studied with has - then I wouldn’t have done all that work and wouldn’t have had to face up to just how poor my hip opening was, which would certainly have led me to more problems and possibly injuries somewhere further down the line.

I’m totally convinced now that the Mysore approach - you don’t go on until you can do things adequately, and if that means facing up to periods of stuckness and frustration then so be it - is far better than the approach I’ve commonly experienced from western teachers of letting students carry on past things they’re not doing properly. That just lets people kid themselves about where their practice is at and ultimately slows down real progress - physical and spiritual.

I once heard a senior iyengar teacher in England describe this kind of thing as "meta-lessons". I really like that phrase. I think meta-lessons are actually the real point of doing this kind of yoga. I’m certainly not stupid enough to think that whether or not I can put my knees on the floor *matters* in the grand scheme of things. But if the road to being able to put my knees on the floor teaches me some things about frustration and motivation and makes me question what I’m doing yoga for, then that is important and worthwhile.

Do I think Sharath consciously has meta-lessons in mind when he’s tough with students in this way? Probably not. But does Pattabhi Jois, who is a great deal older and wiser? Did Krishnamacharya and whatever other great yogis in the past contributed to developing this practice? I think that’s more likely.


all text and images © 2002 Alan Little

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