Heading back; new site

I’ll be switching over to Tumblr for my upcoming trip: journeytomysore.tumblr.com

Life has been so busy that I’m not actually going to believe I’m going back to Mysore until I’m sitting on the plane — at which point, there’ll be plenty of hours for me to acclimatize to the idea.

Theme

Well, it’s Wednesday here in Mysore. This morning was my last practice at the shala. Tomorrow is a moon day, and I fly home Friday night.

As always, Mysore lessons are something of a surprise — never quite what you’d imagine, and yet always so seemingly obvious in the end.

We come here for yoga, and many people make the mistake of thinking that the yoga is in the postures we do. Sure, there’s fun (and fear!) to be had in learning new postures, but the trick is to be able to control your mind and your emotions even in the midst of the fun, the fear, the frustration, and even the triumph.

Somehow, the real game changer in all of this is India herself. I’ve heard people talk about places that they have a “spiritual connection” to, and quite honestly I’ve either rolled my eyes (Eat, Pray, Love) or I’ve taken it to be a metaphor. But at this point I have to admit that there just really is something about India. Don’t get me wrong: I am NOT talking about romantic notions of spiritual connection — nope, this is no blissed out location; not by ANY stretch of the imagination.

But India plays a huge role in the transformation that takes place when this westerner visits. The other day I was thinking about the American character (or perhaps more accurately, MY American character), and I kind of imagined it as a hard shell on the outside, and sentimental filling on the inside. I bring that character to India, and immediately the hard outer shell is BOMBARDED by people people people noises animals people smells sights people people people — wow. And the sentimental center just melts into a puddle of goo. Ow. It really hurts. There’s a sensation when I first get back to India that feels like having your emotions scraped raw.

And then you start to get worked on by India. The hard shell grows more porous and yielding, and the sentimental center gets more… muscular, almost. Tougher, but with room for a stronger compassion. Kind of like how asana practice balances one’s strength and flexibility, so the country itself balances one’s inner and outer experience.

It only seems like we’re limited to transforming our bodies.

Here are some of the (many!) koans that arise when practicing in Mysore:

What if you are settling into a well-deserved savasana and you see that other people are waiting?
What if someone squeezes ahead of you as you wait in the foyer?
What if someone is rocking something you struggle with?
What if someone is struggling with something you rock?
What if a dog cries out in the street?
What if you see a thin cat making its way through a culvert?
And a brainteaser for non-vegans: Why are all the calves female?

Oh, India. You surprise me every time.

***

A friend mentioned that he senses a theme in each visit he makes to Mysore. I haven’t actively been looking for a theme this year, and yet sure enough, one popped into my head this morning as I waited in the foyer.

Another friend had suggested “resilience,” and I had been thinking about “work,” since I’ve been working while here, and working on my practice. But it occurred to me today that this year’s theme is “healing.”

The best thing I experienced this trip was the sight of the dog who I saw get hit by a car last year. I felt such surprise and joy to see that he’d survived a terrible injury and healed enough to enjoy lying in the sun and checking out a passing stranger (me). And I’ve experienced the healing of the pinky toe I managed to break on my second practice — healed just in time to go home! And I’ve practiced day after day in a room full of people working to heal themselves physically, emotionally, psychically, and even existentially.

Resilience is something we cultivate, and it’s certainly important. But healing is something that the universe, as an organism, just does. Not always, of course — as India manages to remind me quite often — but still, healing is going on all the time, and is just as big a part of life as pain and suffering. Sure, we’re all getting beat up by life as we go along, but there’s a counterbalance of healing that’s important to recognize and embrace.

***

Okay, time to get back to work, then a visit to say goodbye and thank you to Sharath, and then a moon day eve dinner (perhaps with a gin and tonic!).

Everyday zen

When the going gets tough, the tough (me!) gets out her koan books.

Book of Serenity: Case 6

Baso’s White and Black

PREFACE TO THE ASSEMBLY

When the mouth cannot be opened, the tongueless person knows how to talk. When a foot cannot be lifted, the legless person knows how to walk. If you fall for someone’s words and are burdened by them, how can freedom be yours? When the four mountains close in, how can you pass free of them?

MAIN CASE

Attention! A monk once asked Baso, “Your reverence, abandoning the four propositions and wiping out the hundred negations, please point out to me directly the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West.” Baso said, “I don’t feel like explaining to you today. Go ask Chizo.” The monk then went to ask Chizo, and Chizo said, “Why don’t you ask the master?” The monk said, “The master told me to ask you.” Rubbing his head with his hand, Chizo said, “I’ve got a headache today. Go and ask Brother Kai.” The monk asked Kai, and Kai said, “Ever since I have been here, I don’t know.” The monk returned and told Baso what had happened, and Baso said, “Chizo’s head is white, Kai’s head is black.”

So, see? There’s my answer!

🙂

And off I went to practice, comforted by wise words, including these: “By accepting your experience without judgments, you allow transformation to take place.”

I was at peace with where I am. So of course, I struggled through kapotasana, and when I came up, Sharath said:

“Supta vajrasana.”

He said it like it was nothing, but I wanted balloons and confetti to fall from the ceiling — and maybe for a band to play!

He held my knees down for supta vajrasana, then said, “Bakasana. A and B.”

I did bakasana as he watched, then jumped back. I was a pretty wigged about landing B with him standing there watching. Missed the first one, but got the second. He said, “Very good.”

Then he added, “Bharadvajasana and ardha matseyandrasana — day after tomorrow.”

After the past couple of years of struggle, it’s pretty awesome to have my last poses be ones that I can do.

And then I thought of some more wise words about practice (be it zen or Ashtanga): “If you think you’re going to become something else, you’re fooling yourself.” And one of my very favorites — for all occasions: “Vast emptiness. No holiness.”

Plateau

This is from a note I just sent to a friend about how practice is going:

I am struggling with practice — which doesn’t surprise me. It’s not pleasant, but I guess it’s necessary. Today I did three kapo tries on my own, then one of the assistants squatted down and said, “Do you want help?”

I said, “Yes. I want you to tell me the secret to making this work.”

He said, “Don’t think too much.” Hahaha! As if!

So now I am not just trying to undo all of the years of weightlifting, but also all of the years of trying to figure this pose out with my analytic mind. He suggested I NOT walk my hands up alongside my feet, but that I put my feet further apart & walk my hands right up the feet. I had that very thought a few months ago, but the common teaching method is alongside the feet. So I’m going to go with his suggestion tomorrow and see how it goes.

Then he assisted me on my last one. I caught my right heel, then was scrabbling at the very top of my left foot. He just pushed my elbow a tiny bit and I had my other heel. I can tell this pose is different from last year because once I have my heels, it feels comfortable to settle my elbows and take five pretty lengthy breaths (whereas last year, it was intensely uncomfortable to be in that position). And when the assistants help me grab my ankles at the very end of practice, it feels fine — whereas last year it felt like I was going to tear in half.

As he was leaving he said, “It’s coming.” And he’s right. All I’m battling right now is my own impatience. It makes me deeply uncomfortable to not be able to do something. I feel incompetent — and that makes me feel ashamed. This is deeper stuff than yoga practice, of course! I’m pretty accustomed to being able to do whatever I want, as soon as I want. So now it’s about just working and having patience — and a good dose of faith.

Sometimes things aren’t as bad as they seem

I’m still struggling with the same pose I was struggling with last year when I was here in Mysore. It’s a lot easier this year than last, but I’m not *quite* able to get into it without a little assistance. This brings up lots of emotions: frustration, despair, anger, a bit of embarrassment that I *still* can’t do it. But damned if I don’t keep trying. This morning I thought to myself, “I’ll have it figured out before NEXT year.” Sometimes I surprise myself with how stubborn I am.

On the walk to lunch today (traditional thali served on a banana leaf), we walked down the crematorium road. This is the road where I saw the dog get hit by a car last year. Down by the houses across from the crematorium, a dog ran out of the gate to have a look at us. Behind him, another dog peeked out. He had a pronounced limp and a thick, malformed right front leg, which had obviously suffered a very bad break (& subsequent rough healing process). Yes, it is the dog who was hit. I was SO happy to see him. I thought surely he’d have died. I actually talked to the people who live in the house last year, armed with a slip of paper that showed me how to say “dog,” “leg,” and “broken” in Kannada. They hadn’t been able to understand me at all, so it wasn’t a fruitful conversation. I went there because the dog had run back in that direction after being hit. Apparently he was running home, because sure enough, there he was today. And he even has a collar now.

One potato

Getting ready to go to practice and I flashed on something Soen Sa Nim used to talk about. He drew an analogy between washing potatoes and the search for enlightenment.

You can wash potatoes one at a time. But it’s more effective to put a whole bunch of potatoes in a big pot of water and agitate them. Then the potatoes help wash each other.

He thought this was very funny. He could see that westerners all like to be special snowflakes. But one of the most important tenets of Mahayana Buddhism is that no one’s free until everyone is free. So going off and contemplating your individual navel may be all well and good, but the party doesn’t start until every creature is accounted for. So might as well join the fray and help other beings as best you can.

With an influx of new year practitioners, the Shala is an enormous potato pot. Lots of dirty potatoes and lots of agitation. Glug, glug, glug.

May we all be happy and free. 🙂

Anahata Vignettes

Yesterday I went to the phone stall to buy some international minutes for my phone. My wifi connection’s been a little sketchy and I had a couple of conference calls I needed to attend. The man at the phone stall put 90 minutes on my account (cost: $9).

This morning I went back and asked for 3 hours worth of minutes. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “Many words.”

***

I saw my favorite dog yesterday and again this morning. He’s the fellow who walks along with me for a bit as I walk down the hill to the Shala. He’s getting a little gray, but he’s still very handsome. And this year he has a collar! I love that there’s someone feeding him and looking after him. He has good karma.

***

As I was walking back up the hill from the phone man, a rickshaw went by and a friend from the past couple of years stuck his head out of the back and waved at me with manic “I’m just arriving back in Mysore!” glee.

***

And roommates. Calley, Jade and Ryan.

image

Repellents, reactions

I think I am slowly being poisoned by mothballs and mosquito repellent. Last time I was here, the cleaning ladies would leave a few mothballs around the room. I would find each mothball and throw it out. Yuck. This year, there are mothballs *everywhere* — in every drawer, on every shelf, in every closet, and — rather oddly — there’s a mothball carefully placed in every drain in the house — kitchen, bathroom, living room (yes, there’s a sink in the living room. It’s to wash your hands before you eat.

Then there’s a small container of Mortein, a mosquito repellent, that plugs into the wall. I can’t smell it when it’s turned on, but I was swarmed by mosquitoes the night I left it turned off. So on it goes at night. Ugh.

***

Today at practice, my toe pain wasn’t too bad. In fact, it really didn’t hurt much at all for the first half of practice. At the end, after drop backs, I walked in to my heels and an assistant grabbed my hands and got me to hang on to my ankles. It’s a lot easier this year than it was last year! No panicky feeling or difficulty breathing, which is nice. And I didn’t have to hang on with a death grip. It’s really good to see that I’ve made some progress with my practice since I was last here. I did want to laugh though, because when he was pulling my hands to my ankles, he said, “Relax. Relax.” If I could have spoken, I would have said, “Seriously??”

It is *so* much easier to back bend here than it is at home. I’m not sure what is weather-related, or diet-related, or psyche-related, or Sharath-related, or energy-of-the-room-related, but it’s quite a dramatic difference. It’s almost like the air supports really deep stretching. 

Last year, the grabbing ankles in backbend thing was quite overwhelming. I felt a bit of reservation this morning when I realized that that was what the assistant was going to do, but once I was in the pose, it actually felt pretty awesome. It’s like getting folded inside out, somehow — and it feels quite liberating. Last year, during the forward bend squish that follows grabbing ankles, I felt freaked out and even thought I might have a panic attack. I’m really happy to be past that reaction.

Interesting, as always, to learn that strong reactions that seem totally real and reasonable will simply dissolve with time and practice. 

I’m hopping on conference calls for work now, so need to run. More later.

A bump in the road

Luckily, breakfast makes everything okay.

I am on the roof, eating…um…I don’t know what they’re called. Lentil flour pancakes. With a little bowl of spicy coconut chutney and a little bowl of spicy vegetable soupy stuff to dip them in. You break off bits with your right hand and dip them in the chutney or vegetable stuff, and it’s delicious. And — correct form or not — I eat up the end of the chutney and the vegetable stuff with a spoon.

I was pretty eager to get home from practice and eat something. I needed comfort food. Why, you ask? Because of my mat.

So this morning is second practice at the Shala. I go a bit earlier than yesterday and end up in the right place, with all the others who share the 9 AM time assignment. Yay! My nervous system is pretty chill, and it’s going to be an awesome practice. Sharath calls for one more and I get a nice little spot in the middle of the room. What more could I ask for?

I roll out my mat. On the last two trips, I lugged a 7 pound Manduka mat from Phoenix to Mysore. My rubber security blanket. But for this trip, I decided to bring my lighter mat. The floor of the Shala is marble covered with a bunch of small cotton yoga rugs. This means that there are spots where the cotton rugs overlap, creating three dimensional features on the floor. I always think of it like looking down on the earth from space and seeing mountains and canyons. 

A thick black mat helps smooth out the floor features, but I decided that on this trip I’d go with the thinner mat and just cope with the three dimensionality. The stickiness of the thin mat is greater than that of the black, and the toughest job on this trip will be walking my hands up along the sides of my feet in kapotasana — a project where success is highly related to the stickiness of my mat. So I was stacking the deck in my favor as much as possible.

Here’s what I overlooked: the desert where I live is all about dryness and dust. Which means yoga mats are slick and slippery. As soon as I unrolled my thin mat here in Mysore, I noticed that it is crazy sticky from the humidity. As sticky as my hair is curly from the humidity. And that is saying something. Needless to say, I was psyched. Walking in to my heels on a super-sticky mat? Heaven.

Double-edged sword, though, as it turns out. First jump through of practice this morning saw me catching my left toe on the sticky mat. Ow! I told myself it would be fine, that I should just go on, and I did. Much pain, of the searing variety. I looked at my toe and saw that it was actually sticking out kind of sideways. Not good. While keeping the vinyasa count (no kidding, it’s how we’re trained), I tried pointing my toes to see if it’d straighten my little toe. Nope. I tried flexing my toes. OWW! I took a moment at the beginning of the next seated pose to grab the tip of my toe and pull it straight out until it slipped back into a more normal configuration.

I was annoyed at myself, but what can you do? I wondered if I should go ask Usha (who runs the office) for some tape, but then I just decided to go with awkward one-footed jump backs and see how it went. Ugly, but good enough. A few of the postures did not feel at all good, and I was wondering how backbends and dropbacks would go. Turns out they were fine. 

Sharath came over for assisted backbends. He went “hmmmm” under his breath because my breathing was so shallow, but I was in survival mode at that point. All I wanted was to walk in to my heels & get it right this time.

“Walk in,” he said, and I did. Right to my heels and then up my ankles a bit. 

I was rewarded with a “Very good.” And he chuckled when I said, “MY feet!”

Tomorrow is a moon day, so a day off from practice. I’ll nurse my toe by drinking lots of turmeric tea & tape it to its neighbor toe. I may also dabble in some aspirin. I don’t think I can get ibuprofen around here. Regardless, there’ll be no disabled list for me — I’ve come too far for this!

Need to wrap up and go pack. Moving to an apartment down the street, where I’ll room with some friends I made last year. Pictures and stories to follow…