Cults, white toast, wrong foot

Last night, I was talking with my friend Rose about a teacher here in Mysore.

“I don’t know for sure, but it all sounds a little culty,” I said.

And now, in loving detail, I’ll recount this morning’s practice with Sharath. The irony is not lost on me.

I woke this morning in a bit of a panic. There may be people who come here and don’t feel their nerves before their first practice at the Shala, but I’m not one of them, and I suspect no matter how many times I come, I’ll still wake on the first morning feeling scared. Dion and I spent a little time chatting via email, and then I was on my way.

The foyer was insanely crowded at 8:45. It’s almost impossible to explain the intricacies of how time works in the Shala, but suffice it to say that the clock is set at least fifteen minute early and you’re supposed to come 15 minutes before your assigned time.

What became clear pretty quickly was that the vast majority of people in the huge foyer had starting times after mine. They’re trying to sneak in early! Imagine my disapproval (seriously, I felt disapproval). Then one woman told me that we are supposed to go in according to who’s been there the longest, and not according to our assigned time. What?! That’s ridiculous! Grrrrrrrr. I spent some time thinking about whether people were just being greedy and/or if they are confused and/or if I should tell someone off. In the end, I just figured I’d wait and see what happened. And what happened was that Sharath came to the doorway and said, “9 o’clock? 9 o’clock?” And two of us raised our hands and he told us to come to the front.

(Okay, I have to share what just happened. I am sitting on the rooftop of the hotel, where breakfast is served. The woman who oversees the service came over with a tray to pick up the condiments & I asked what the stuff is that looks like lumpy brownish ketchup. She said something about bread and I said, “Oh,” and nodded my head and smiled. Now she’s brought me two slices of toasted white bread. I have to figure out how to hide it and bring it to the birds and dogs without her seeing me.)

So, practice. It was AWESOME to be back in the Shala. It is the BEST room to practice in. So many people, and yet you disappear into your own little world. The only difficulty was my nervous system, which seemed to be turned up a little too high. Actually, it was turned up a lot too high. Between jet lag, first practice of the season, morning coffee and probably not enough food yesterday, I was super jangly. It took almost a half an hour before I finally settled in and felt calm.

A lovely practice. The heat and humidity of India is extraordinary — a huge boost to flexibility. I lose perspective about how practicing in my chilly, dry room at home affects my physical practice — until I come here and everything feels so much easier.

We do primary series for the first week — which is a great way to settle in and prepare for subsequent weeks of more intensive work. So I did my primary poses, then my backbends. I stood up from the last backbend and there was Sharath, ready to assist me on the final backbend, where you walk in to your heels. Over I went and walked in to touch my right heel, and then with my left hand… his foot.

“My foot,” he said.

I walked my hand in more.

“Still my foot.”

Gah! I was trying to quickly sort out if his foot was to the inside or outside of mine so I could know where to shift my hand to get my left heel, but mostly my left hand was just flopping around.

He laughed and said, “You catch,” (translation: Okay, you get credit for getting your heels), and as I sat down for the final forward bend, he said, “Very good for first time.”

Here’s the thing I love about Sharath: he remembers that when I first came here three years ago, I was *just* managing to stand up from backbends, and he remembers that last year I struggled mightily with kapotasana and walking in to my heels. He knows where I’ve been and he sees where I am and he gives me credit for the work that he can see I’ve done. Coming here is about reporting in on where daily practice has gotten me over the past year, and to get direction about how I should proceed for the next year.

I’m not (by ANY stretch of the imagination) one of the bendiest or strongest people here, but I feel seen for who I am, which is someone who practices with dedication. I can’t even begin to say how gratifying it is to have that recognized and encouraged.


Enough asana talk! How about some India talk?

India is extraordinary. It is so nice to be back. The endless stream of car and scooter and animal and people noise felt reassuring and familiar last night. And the very best noise of all is the sweeping noise of people cleaning their stairs and walkways in the earliest morning, along with the yells of the vegetable hawkers who stroll up and down the streets, calling out their wares. Mysore is an early bird’s dream — bright and vibrant every morning.

I went to the phone stall today to get my Indian phone turned back on. I always wonder if I can get by without an Indian phone, but texting is definitely a way of life here — the only way, really, to keep in touch with friends. At the phone stall, the man turned my phone back on and gave me credit for a month. Cost: $8.

I’m going to do some work this afternoon, and relax a bit. I brought along a poetry manuscript I started when I was here last year, and I’d love to edit it — but I don’t want to rush it; there’s a certain kind of flow state that I want to wait for.

Okay, time to get a move on. I have my white bread toast hidden in a napkin and can smuggle it out of here. I think the dog who lives in the culvert on the corner might like it…

Round 3!

I’ll be setting off to Mysore tomorrow morning at 11 AM. On my first trip, I started preparing months in advance. On my second trip, I started preparing weeks in advance. This time around, I’m kinda flying by the seat of my pants. Anything I overlook is something I can sort out once on the ground in Mysore.

I’m dying to be back in India, but also incredibly sad to leave Dion and Waylon and Daisy (& Anna! who’s now living in Seattle). So even though this is a fantastic journey, it’s also a bit difficult. But somehow it’s a necessary annual culmination of the practice I do every morning — a kind of accounting, a paying of respects at the source, the start of a new year, a rededication, an acknowledgement of my gratitude.


Home IS where the heart is.

I’m unpacking and posting some pics from a walk on my last afternoon in Mysore. Slept well last night, having taken some pasta and wine and melatonin.

I’m covered in Waylon fur and Daisy fur, and they are both snoozing next to me as I write this. I’m drinking some “pale” black tea — no spices, no sugar — and it is pretty awesome.

First message I had, upon landing in Phoenix after a 35 hour trip, was from Anu. Pili, the little stray she took to the shelter, was adopted during the week. And it warms my heart that I heard the news from a number of other people who were concerned about a little black street dog. Rock on, you guys!

I have castor oil and neem soap ready to go: castor oil bath this afternoon, followed by a nice nap. And then Dion and I will go out for dinner.

Life is good.

‘Til next time

Lots of “See you laters” today. At practice Geoff assisted me in backbends (and kapo — I got one heel yesterday and then flapped around with my other hand. Need to sort out where my other foot is!). I was a bit breathless and paused before the last backbend and ankle-grabbing portion of the program.

“Take your time,” he said. “It’s my last day.”

“Mine, too!” I said. “Maybe we should just stand here doing nothing and see how long it takes before Sharath notices.”

We decided against that experiment.

I think my favorite thing this trip (asana-wise) has been the ankle-grabbing backbends. I noticed two little round bruises, one on each ankle, the other day — and it took me a moment to realize that they are my fingerprints. Apparently I am holding on for dear life.

Yes, it’s hard to breathe in that posture, and I get bruises, but it also feels really freeing, somehow. I’m still new enough at it to not know exactly what I’m feeling, so I’ll save the commentary for later on. One thing for sure, though — having a person help you grab your ankles is a lot nicer than using a bunch of bungee cords to bolt yourself to the wall and do it on your own.


Last breakfast on the roof with Susan. I will be happy for some bland food, I must admit. Funnily enough, I also know that I will start to really miss spicy Indian food after a while.

Next time I’m here, I want more kitchen options so I can have some bland food. My spice-saturation level is at 125%. I daydream about gluten-free rice bread and plain oatmeal.

Susan was a fantastic journey companion. I’ll especially miss sitting on the steps by the chai shop in the evening, just watching the world go by. Good times.


I didn’t expect to get as involved with the street dogs as I did this trip. It was a rough opening to this journey, seeing one of them get hit by a car — the experience made me wonder how I could help that one fellow, and then all of the others by extension.

Obviously, practicing yoga is about reconciling the physical and the spiritual, the actual and the ideal, the relative and the absolute. India is a vast country and there are so many humans and other creatures, and it can be incredibly overwhelming to think about trying to effect change or to help other beings. I still don’t know how to think about this — it’s an ongoing koan, I suppose.

Posters are going up around the neighborhood in hopes that the owners of the little dog that Anu named Pili will see it and get in touch. I hope she can get out of the shelter. She’s really not cut out for it — not that any of the creatures who are there really are.

Bye to all the dogs on the street and in the shelter; bye to the scraggly cats and the goats and cows and horses. I wish there were humans keeping an eye out for you all, and hope that maybe there are, and I just didn’t see it.


This afternoon I walked down to the Main Street and bought a couple of half meters of flowers from the flower vendor. I know one of my choices was tuberose — all I know about my other selection is that the flowers are orange. When you buy the strings of flowers, the vendor wraps them up in a banana leaf, ties it with string, and puts a couple of roses on top as a decoration.

I walked my package of flowers over to the shala and asked to see Sharath. My intention was to thank him for teaching me over the past five weeks. Surprisingly, he was not at the shala. I know he is battling a cold, so I am assuming he took the afternoon off.

Chalk this up to: It’s the thought that counts. I suppose I’ll thank him for teaching me this year by going back next year.


I’m packed and my car to the airport is due in 45 minutes. Then:

4 hour ride to the airport
2 hour wait
10 hour flight to Paris
2 hour layover
9 hour flight to Atlanta
2 hour layover
5 hour flight to Phoenix

Almost home. 🙂

Words of wisdom

Okay, so last Thursday Sharath asked me if I was “catching” in kapotasana (getting my heels), and when I said “no,” he told me to call him next time I was doing the posture.

Friday was led class, Saturday was our weekly day off, Sunday was the moon day, and Monday was led (because of the moon day). So today was the day for me to call him at kapotasana.

Sure, this has been on my mind for the past few days. And it was in the back of my mind (as far back as I could push it) all throughout practice this morning.

Finally, I was to kapotasana. I looked around and caught his eye, and he came over right away. Without a word, I curled back for the posture. He caught my right wrist in the air and put my hand on my heel, then popped my left hand on my other heel. And then he spoke:

“You can do yourself.”

And then he went to help someone else.

I wanted to laugh out loud. I suppose this is as brilliant a comment as you can possibly offer a home practitioner. I also recognize that he didn’t necessarily mean I can do it myself *this minute* or even this week, but he has seen that it is well within my reach and told me so. There is nothing more to be done — aside from me working it out.

The way he guided me into the posture had a little kinesthetic clue that seemed to intuitively recognize the way my particular shoulders work, so I’ll experiment with that a bit.

In the meantime, all I can imagine is a cross-stitched pillow for the yoga room, immortalizing the words I’ve come so far to hear: “You can do yourself.”

Uncanny, PFA, Mysore

Yesterday a few of us went over to the People for Animals shelter. I arranged for us to meet at the shala, so arrived there a little early to wait for the others. Two friends from Toronto arrived first. We got to chatting and for some reason I was telling them about how uncanny it is that when I arrived for my second visit, Sharath actually remembered where I was in my practice. Even as I was saying it, I was recognizing how ridiculous that sounded — surely it was a kind of coincidence, or an illusion? He couldn’t *really* remember such a thing… And I looked up and saw Sharath walking down the street toward us. I was sitting on the ground, and my friends had their backs to him, so didn’t spot him. Well, not until he said, “Why weren’t you in class yesterday?” They whirled around and quickly (& hilariously) started explaining that though they weren’t at led class, they’d practiced at home. Really!

“You pay a fine. Five hundred rupees,” he said, and laughed.

Seriously? He taught — one after the other — three led classes chock full of students, and he knows these two weren’t there?

I don’t even know how to think about that.


So yes, another trip to People for Animals. There were many more puppies than usual. Most were in good shape; a few were sketchy. The sad metric is that there is usually one dog dying per week, it seems. And then the few who have intractable, but not fatal skin conditions, and those who are sailing along relatively healthily and happily.

One of the workers had enough English to tell me that they adopt out maybe 2 puppies per week, and that there is enough food for the dogs. I need to learn enough Kannada to talk to the workers here. That is my project for next year. I don’t want conversational Kannada necessarily, but questions like “Why are some of the dogs in cages?” would be good to ask. I think that the answer to that was that they cage mother dogs and pups together if the mother is nervous, but I am not sure if I understood correctly.

While there we saw “Pili,” a little stray that Anu, who runs a cafe in town, found wandering in her neighborhood. I didn’t recognize her at first, when I saw her hiding by the fence near the puppies. She’s a sweet little street dog/Doberman mix. She seemed pretty traumatized and frightened, so we tried to console her. She’d been at PFA for less than 24 hours. It’s hard for me to imagine how she feels about transitioning from life in Gokulam (presumably with owners, as she doesn’t have the independent personality of a street dog) to life in the dusty confines of the shelter, with its motley, rough and tumble pack of not always friendly dogs.

One theme for this trip has definitely been: “Dogs.” Not just dogs, though — dogs and suffering and karma and how much action can actually be taken to ease suffering. Another mysterious thing that I do not have an answer for.


And then there is the suffering of Ashtangis, which — come on — pales by comparison. “I hurt my knee/hip/shoulder/whatever,” “Should I go to Mysore?” Etc., etc., etc.

In the last conference, Sharath said we practice in order to steady the body and the mind. Then we can use that steadiness out in the world. Simple. Whatever cultivates steadiness is useful; whatever destroys steadiness: not useful.

Everyone lucky enough to get a human incarnation gets to choose.

Lizard, Catching, Infrastructure

There is a tiny lizard who seems to live behind the picture of a rhinoceros that’s hung over my refrigerator. He was very active last week, but seems to be a little sluggish this week. There really aren’t that many bugs around for him to eat, I’m afraid. I put a puddle of water on the floor, and a dead bug behind the picture for him — hopefully that’ll get him back on track.


Convo with Sharath after assisted backbends this morning:

“Kapotasana, you catching?”

“Close. But no.”

“Next time you call me.”

Um, okay. That should be scary and thrilling.


Sure, there are India blogs with beautiful pictures of exotic sights. Not this one, though! No, I am finding myself particularly fascinated by culverts, sidewalks, trash, and how and where animals find food. I’m uploading a bunch of photos to Flickr, and they’re all about culverts and destroyed sidewalks and trash waiting to be eaten by animals and ashes of trash that gets burned after the animals are done eating.

No one actually walks on the sidewalks around here. They walk on the side of the road. The sidewalks are riddled with holes and collapsed areas. I’m not actually sure that the sidewalks were ever intended for pedestrians, though. Mostly they are just slabs that cover the culverts that run along the street, and they have holes drilled in them to drain rainwater into the culverts. So maybe the “sidewalks” are really just covers on the drainage system, and not intended for foot traffic. Really, I have no idea. And for some reason, I find it endlessly fascinating to look at the holes in the ground. Also a little horrifying: I always worry about children falling in. I spend a good bit of my time trying to telepathically prevent dogs from crossing the busy streets and kids from falling into holes in the so-called sidewalk. India turns me into the weirdest kind of control freak.

Day off

No, not a day off from practice, but a day off from pretty much everything else.

This morning was practice as usual. I did all of my usual postures, including the tough one at the end, kapotasana.

I gave an all-out effort three times in a row, struggling to get my hands around my heels — and yes, I am getting closer, but still not quite there. So I challenged myself (did I mention I did it THREE times?) and then was going to start the closing backbends. But wait, just as I was ready to do that, my guardian angel assistant showed up.

“I’m a little late,” he said.

“I already did it three times,” I said, showing him three fingers.

“One more.”

Sigh. Okay. I’m here for the work. Good to get past self-limiting ideas, like that three serious attempts at an exhausting posture is enough for one day. 😉

We did the usual deal, where I struggle to straighten my arms on an inhale, then walk closer to my heels on an exhale, four rounds of inhale/exhale. Then a little surprise at the end: “One more.”

My lift at that point was quite pathetic, as was my internal monolog, “Arghhhhhhh….” He grabbed my hands and pulled my fingers *past* my heels (internal monolog, “WTF??”) and held them down.

“Breathe.” Then: “Look at your nose.”

Ah, the claustrophobic feeling of being folded backwards and your arms pulled off. How many repetitions will it take before I begin to love it? The funny thing is that I know I will; the postures I love most in practice are the ones that have been most difficult to achieve. I already know that kapotasana will be my ultimate favorite posture.

Some day.

In the meantime, I am taking a day off from pretty much everything except practice. I ate breakfast, then retreated to my room to read and sleep and look at pictures of Michelle Obama’s hair (love the bangs!) and tend my slightly-crispy-around-the-edges nervous system. All I have on the schedule is a smoothie later on this evening at Anu’s.

Then, refreshed, I can get back to my most satisfying posture bright and early tomorrow morning.

People for Animals: Return Trip

Six of us set off to visit People for Animals this morning. Lots of animal lovers in Mysore, which is lovely.

Everyone immediately set about interacting with the animals, especially the dogs, who are very happy to receive visitors. Like pretty much everything around here, experiences can be raw and painful. As I was heading over to the area where the rescued monkeys and turkeys (yes, really — turkeys) are kept, I spotted what I thought was a very ill dog lying off to the side. It didn’t take more than a second glance for me to realize he was dead. I went and spoke to the assistant and she came with me, telling me the doctors said he had cancer all through his system, so there was nothing they could do. When she verified he was gone, she had the men take his body away.

At the same time, we were besieged by a new crop of puppies. Four siblings, rolling and cavorting and snoozing as soon as you picked them up and cradled them. Their mom kept trying to shake them off as they bothered her to nurse — she just wanted to sit and be petted. Clearly she needed a little time for herself.

Later on I spotted a small dog who was clearly dying — convulsing a little and very weak. It was absolutely heartbreaking, but the alternative would be for him to die on the streets. If the vets can’t help a dog, they let him be and allow nature to take its course.

The PFA truck came in, and the workers took out six or seven dogs in individual nets and set them in a shaded area. Some of the dogs fought the net; some were still. They will all be sterilized this afternoon, treated for medical problems, vaccinated, and then returned to their neighborhoods. It was hard seeing them so frightened and stressed, but it will benefit them in the end.

While the new dogs were being attended to, other workers spent some time figuring out how to pump water for the animals (during a power cut) and then set about feeding them. Rice gruel in dozens of steel bowls. The healthy ones ate; the sick ones didn’t. Then the dogs stretched out or curled up in patches of shade, moving only to follow the shade as the sun moved across the sky.

I’ve been reading the Yoga Vasistha, and was struck by one of Rama’s observations: Animals live at the mercy of others.