The Mysore Practice
When I first walked into a Mysore-style practice yoga room, I had the familiar sense of vulnerability and unknowing. Looking around the dim room of around ten people I saw each person in their own flow and focus, in a different posture and breathing effortlessly into their next. How did they all know what they were doing? Why were they not intrigued by their neighbour’s posture and practice? And, can I do this too?
I think my ‘journey to yoga’ story is similar to most in that I first tried a class at the gym, having been really into Pilates and loving all the core and slow strength work from my dancing and gymnastic days. The class was an Ashtanga Vinyasa Flow style and was set in one of the many studios in an upmarket gym in Central London. The teacher was a exotic-ish but a little exhausted looking man wearing some linen harem pants and a vest - it was all very fitting for the yogi teacher-traveller stereotype.
With the understanding now, the class was loosely based on the Ashtanga system in that it was challenging, it included vinyasa to link postures and followed a counting method. I loved it but more for the challenge and stretch than the mindfulness and introspection. I soon tried out an Ashtanga class at TriYoga in Soho believing that a yoga-only studio will provide better classes for me to really dig my nails into. And it did. The interesting thing about Ashtanga yoga is that most people come to it because it’s described in schedules as the most athletic and demanding of the different systems, and so it fits with gym bunnies wanting to feel the burn and have a sweat session whilst trying to achieve zen. The thing that hooks you in though is actually the repetition of the practice, which opens a path to just yourself.
Ashtanga classes with a teacher in the front of the room talking through each posture are a wonderful introduction to the system, however in its tradition, its taught with a teacher walking around the room to help individuals whilst each student practices at their own pace. The clever sequences, of which there are six, are masterfully put together so individual asanas build towards future ones. Everyone starts with the same opening sequence to help still the mind and warm the body, and from there people move forward with their own practice set out by the teacher. As you feel more competent and strong in an asana, your teacher will give you new ones to challenge following the set sequence.
The beauty of the Mysore practice, named after the city in which the practice was founded by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, is that it’s a metaphor for life in its fullest. People start and arrive at different times according to their own schedules, and we all practice on our own but in a room full of people. We go through the motions of our individual practice starting with the familiar and basic despite all the heavy breathing, chanting, humidity and sweat going on but once you’re in your zone, you hear only your own breath and listen to your body’s signals whilst honing in on which area needs power and which need softness.
In that zone, for the majority of the time you are just focused on you but every now and then, a close neighbour catches your eye because of a wild asana their trying or because you need to wait for someone to finish their asana so theres enough room for your next. The room is packed full of mats and practitioners with just a few inches between each other - it’s a simple, humble practice room which encourages thoughtfulness, kindness and a little curiosity. When we need help, we can wait to ask (or rather build up the courage to ask), or the assistants and teacher will see and come over.
The fascinating time on the mat with just yourself means you are faced with your thoughts and feelings in silence. You start becoming aware of recurring anxiousness before a particular pose, an erratic frustration because either you can’t do it, someone hasn’t seen you need help or someone has got in your way, and even fleeting moments of contentment when you feel able, strong and calm. The more I’ve practiced in this way, the more intimate I’ve become with myself and continued to learn self-acceptance.
As much as I think I’m a nice person, I still have moments of irrational annoyance with others and myself. I’m not always selfless and don’t often offer someone else to start their practice before me in the last space going for a while, because I have work to get to and I worry about my own time and if I’ll run late. I’ve also learnt that some postures just come harder to me than for others and vice versa - for some, I need props and more help from my teacher because that’s just the way I’m made.
We can use the outside world to blame for our shortcomings and whilst some may be true, we must also accept that we are part of that very world. The practice gives you autonomy over yourself; you decide when you start, how long you practice for, and really, what you practice as no one is monitoring your every asana. Take this off the mat and carry that same autonomy by asking yourself how you are feeling? What do you feel you can take on today? What can you do to make yourself feel better?
The self-practice itself is therefore incredibly personal and tailor-made on many levels - with your teacher, yourself and the physical form it takes - despite the set sequences. Every person’s life is just like this too. We all follow the same life cycle but the way in which we live is entirely up to the individual’s capabilities, desires and situation. There is so much outside noise that can disrupt our intention and action but it’s rightfully there for us to take into consideration as we draw our own way, and what it really comes down to is how you move around and with those distractions with self-love and care.
I practice at Astanga Yoga London (www.astangayogalondon.com) and have had the wonderful Hamish as my teacher for the past five years.
Photo credit: Barefoot Yoga Co.