I recently completed my fifth trip of practice with Sharath Jois in Mysore, India. It’s been a few trips since I wrote an anecdotal account of my experiences in Mysore. After my preceding two trips, I didn’t have much that was new to say about Mysore or practice with Sharathji, but this trip felt different. I had the opportunity to be in the first batch of students who practiced the full schedule in the new shala that Sharathji has recently opened. Something about this trip felt special for me, not just in terms of being part of the inauguration of the new shala, but also in the context of personal development. It was my best trip so far and I feel it is appropriate to share some of that positivity, especially in light of all the negative sentiment that has been propagated by a disgruntled minority of the Ashtanga community on social media over the past year or two.
The new shala is located approximately 10 km outside of Gokulam. Sharathji began conducting led classes there in the previous practice session–which I did not attend–but this was the first session where the full schedule of classes was held at the new shala. When it was announced that all of the classes would be held there, I was not looking forward to the daily commute for practice. On previous trips, I enjoyed the fact that all of the facilities we need as students, including accommodation, decent restaurants and shops have all been developed in Gokulam. One could stay close to the shala in Gokulam, without the need to travel further than walking distance for most of one’s daily needs. It was always pleasant to stroll to the shala on foot in the early hours of the morning and I wasn’t very keen about a 10 km scooter drive for practice.
The drive took 10 – 15 minutes in the early morning hours, which are mostly traffic free. I drive faster than most people, as I am accustomed to a similar scooter commute from my home to the shala where I have taught in Ubud, Bali for the past five years. The roads on the main route from Gokulam to the new shala are all in decent condition and it only took a few days for me to get used to the drive. It wouldn’t be possible to have a shala of the size of the new one in the Gokulam area, and it quickly became apparent that the drive in was an acceptable trade-off for the benefits we experienced at the new shala.
The most notable thing about the new shala is its size. It is very large and can easily accommodate all 300 students for a led class. It seems to have previously been some sort of warehouse. A nice floor has been installed, which is similar to the floor that was installed at the old shala in Gokulam a few years ago. The property surrounding the shala is also sizable and the folks from Depth N Green restaurant have set up a refreshment and snack stall in an adjacent side building. The coconut guy has also set up there during practice hours.
The interior of the shala is well organized. There is a central stage on the East side, where Sharathji sits, and there are 76 mats spaces, individually marked out by construction tape, in front of the stage. The mat spaces are of ample size and in total, the 76 mat spaces take up approximately one third of the total floor space of the shala. Tall students, like myself, are requested to practice in the back two rows. I ended up claiming the back right corner spot, which I enjoyed quite a bit. It gave me even more room with no one on my right side or behind me.
There is a large space between the main entrance on the North side and the marked mat spaces. On the South side of the mat spaces, there are a few removable dividers, which section off a good sized space for finishing postures. The changing rooms lie on the Southern most end of the shala.
Everything was impressively organized, especially considering this was the first run of a very sizable move of everything into a new space. The system for Mysore classes ran smoothly. Each new shift would wait outside the main doors, and eventually be brought in all at once to sit in the back right corner, where they would wait to be called to the vacant spaces one by one, as each practicing student finished and moved to the finishing area. As usual, I was on the first shift, which officially began at 5:30 am – one hour later than it did in the old shala. Arrival was very casual. The doors would open at 4:45 am and I usually arrived on my bike right about that time. We would all walk in and set up without any rush or fuss and begin practicing. Sharathji would come out of his office at 5:30 for the opening mantra.
Led classes were also smooth and it was enjoyable to practice with everyone together. All 300 students easily fit in the shala space, without any feeling of being crowded. Hence, there were no long line ups or jostling for spaces like there was in the old shala. Led primary series began at 6:30 am. I don’t know what time the door was opened for led class, but I would usually arrive between 5:45 and 6 am, and about one third of the students would already be in the room and setting up. Conference would be held after led primary class, with a 30 minute break in between. On Mondays, led intermediate was at 8:15 am, after led primary series finished.
One of the main benefits that I enjoyed in the new shala was the feeling of more air and specifically more oxygen in the room. While I enjoyed the intimate intensity of the old shala, I always found the air to be depleted of oxygen, and I would tire easily at the end of my long practice. I always felt that the oxygen levels in the old shala were somewhat akin to practicing at 3000 + meters in elevation (which I have plenty of experience with), except one didn’t ever get a chance to acclimatize to the lower oxygen content because the rest of the day outside of the shala was spent at normal oxygen levels. At the new shala, this was not an issue at all. The space is so large and the ceilings so high, that even when all 300 students were practicing at once in the led classes, the space felt airy and the oxygen levels felt normal. I immediately noticed the difference in my stamina, and I did not experience oxygen related fatigue, even though my practice grew to the longest and most intense level it has ever been in Mysore.
Finishing was also very relaxed. There was always space for everyone to finish, and no sense of having to rush through finishing postures to make way for the next batch of people that needed to finish. We were welcome to take a long relaxation at the end, which I am accustomed to doing.
During October and November, the temperature in the shala was near perfect on the first shift of Mysore style classes and for led primary series class. Some people complained that it was too cold, and it certainly was colder than it was in the old shala in Gokulam. This wasn’t an issue for me, as I am used to practicing in the chilly early morning hours at home in Bali. I don’t rely on external heat to open my body up, and I usually feel better practicing in a slightly chilly environment than I do in excessive heat. Even in these slightly cooler conditions on the first shift, I was always sweating heavily by the end of my practice. I can imagine how it might get uncomfortably cold in the colder months of December and January, however. For led intermediate at 8:15 am and also for conference at approximately the same time on Saturdays, it felt uncomfortably hot in the warmer month of October. Once the morning sun hit the roof of the shala, things heated up very quickly. Apparently, a better ventilation system is one of the next projects to be implemented, so we should see this improve by next season. The climate in Mysore cools down in November, so the heat was never an issue towards the end of my trip, even during led intermediate and conference.
During the first week or two of practice, I felt there was an intimacy and certain energy that was missing in the new shala. The place felt too big and “cold” energetically, but this perception shifted by the time we had all been practicing together in the space for two weeks. It takes time for energy to accumulate in any new space, and this was no exception. By the second half of the first month, I felt perfectly at home and comfortable in the new shala, and this feeling was reflected in my practice experience. No doubt the energy will continue to build in the room as different batches of students develop their practices there.
Sharathji himself was very sharp and seemed to be in a positive and vibrant mood for the duration of the two months. In the old shala, I believe we had 50 – 60 students practicing at a time for Mysore classes, so the numbers were only slightly increased here at 76 students. In the old shala we had 2 – 3 assistants at any given time for Mysore classes, and here we had 5 – 6 assistants. There was never any waiting for postures like Supta Vajrasana or for catching, as someone was always close by and ready to help. Sharathji was attentive and the increase in student numbers did not seem to affect his ability to monitor everyone’s practice. I certainly received ample attention from him. Other students that I spoke to felt the same in this respect.
For Sharathji himself, I feel this move made the teaching process more sustainable. I always marveled at the amount of work he did at the old shala, teaching from 4 am to 11 am for Mysore practice and teaching three led classes in succession on the led class days. Though he did it extremely competently, and I cannot think of any other living human being who could have done so, it also seemed like it would not be sustainable for him in the long run. He still has to work extremely hard in the new shala, but his work hours are slightly reduced, with a later start time in the mornings, and only one led class on Saturdays and two on Mondays. I hope he feels like it is something that he can continue to do, so that we can continue to benefit from his teaching for years to come. He certainly seemed to feel good about the move, and we all benefited from that positivity.
Overall, the energy and mood in the shala was high. I am a hermit by nature, and don’t socialize very much in Mysore, so I can’t claim to have access to a very wide sampling of perspectives from other students, but all of the people that I did talk to shared similar opinions. We all enjoyed practice in the new shala and felt like we had an extremely positive experience there. The move seems to have been beneficial for both Sharathji and for the students.
The past one to two years has seen a certain amount of negativity directed towards Sharathji on social media. I have no interest in publicly commenting on the specific issues that have been brought up, except to say that I fully understand and support the changes that Sharathji has made. His actions all make complete sense to me. As a trained psychologist and Buddhist, I have found it extremely interesting to witness the vehement negativity in the accusations that some people have publicly leveled against Sharathji. A teacher of any authentic system of self-transformation has a difficult job, in that he becomes an easy object for the projection of the internal samskara patterns which naturally arise for the students in the practice.
Any authentic practice will bring our samskaras (habitual patterns or grooves that we generate in the ways that we unconsciously react or respond to the world around us) onto the surface of our conscious experience. When this occurs, a practitioner has three choices: 1) Run away from or avoid experiencing the samskara; 2) Add fuel to the fire of the samskara by reacting more strongly to it and increasing the depth of its groove in our subconscious patterning; 3) Attempt to consciously observe the manifestation of the samskara without reaction and with as much objectivity/equanimity as possible.
Some members of our community have engaged in dramatic public displays of self-immolation, burning in the flames of their own unresolved samskaras for everyone to witness. Certain opportunists from outside the Ashtanga system have capitalized on this mess and encouraged the performers to deepen the drama of their performances. I have felt both entertained and embarrassed for these social media circus acts over the last year or two. Other people have left the organization in quieter and more respectful ways. The most unpalatable aspect of the entire spectacle for me has been the number of people who’ve jumped onto the bandwagon of blatant social media virtue signalling, as a means to promote their own self-interest.
The positivity of our experience in the new shala with Sharathji over the past two months has solidified my perception that what has occurred has been a very healthy process of weeding out those who are no longer benefiting from, nor wish to continue to engage in the practice of Ashtanga Yoga in the way that Sharathji teaches it. I wish all of the people who have weeded themselves out the very best, and I hope that they can find a healthy and fruitful way to engage with themselves and with their lives which makes it irrelevant for them to criticize those of us who still very much enjoy and benefit from our practice and especially from our relationship with our teacher, Sharath Jois.
The above is all I wish to publicly say about recent controversies. I request those who hold a different opinion from my own to refrain from attempting to engage with me on this subject in the comments section. This is not because I wish to exist in an echo chamber. I am well aware of all of the issues and accusations, and my own opinions are well developed and considered in light of all of the information that has been shared. I am comfortable and happy in my own relationship with the Ashtanga practice, and my relationship with my teacher, Sharath Jois, and with my students. I simply don’t wish to devote any of my time and energy to debating with those who hold a different opinion from my own, and who are unable to move forward from the quagmire of their own samskaras. There are issues and problems facing the human race and the entirety of life on the planet earth which are of far greater magnitude and importance than the internal politics of the Ashtanga system of yoga practice.
To sum up this section of my reflections on the past two months: The evolution of practice with Sharath Jois in Mysore feels very positive to me, and seemingly to most of the students who were there in October and November. We all enjoyed and benefited from practice in the new shala very much and it was a privilege to practice with a group of 300 people who were all grateful for the opportunity to be present at the inauguration of the new shala and to benefit from Sharathji’s teaching.
Part of the positivity I experienced on this trip came from the development in my personal practice. I’ve written about some of the struggles that I experienced in my personal practice on my first two trips of practice with Sharathji, as well as the insights and benefits that I gleaned from working through those struggles. The subsequent three trips have been much smoother on a practice level, and the sense of ease in my asana practice at the shala culminated in this fifth trip. I feel that Sharathji and I have learned a lot about each other, in spite of the fact that we rarely exchange words, and we understand how to work with each other effectively and with mutual respect. The evolution of this relationship is a major factor in my increased sense of ease and progression in my asana practice under Sharathji’s guidance.
I began this trip on Koundinyasana, which is about halfway through the arm balance section of the third series. My only major stumbling point in my previous trip was Eka Pada Bakasana A, which is the most difficult arm balance and one of the weakest links in my third series practice. Sharathji demanded that I develop the ability to lift the foot of the bent leg up higher and that I straighten the arms in the posture. These expectations required me to study and rework the entire posture from the ground up, which I did in part by watching YouTube videos of the few advanced practitioners who are able to execute this posture adeptly (thanks to those who have shared their practice of this posture in this way). I was stuck on Eka Pada Bakasana A for a few weeks on the previous trip. Once I had worked out how to do the posture in line with Sharathji’s standards, he moved me forward with a few more postures at the end of the trip.
I continued to develop my Eka Pada Bakasana A in my home practice over the past year and was happy to experience continued progress in it. On the first day of third series practice on this most recent trip, I think I heard Sharathji make an approving comment from somewhere nearby while I was executing the posture.
A large part of my asana development with Sharathji over five trips can be summed up by the following general description: I consider the full manifestation of Difficult Asana X to be beyond my physical capabilities due to structural limitations in my body. When I reach Difficult Asana X in my practice with Sharathji, he points out that he wants me to be able to do it anyways. He then leaves me to work it out myself. I grumble and moan about it for a few days, and then put my head down and attempt to figure it out. With persistence and effort, I eventually manage to improve my ability to manifest the full version of the posture, and then feel happy about having attained something which I had previously considered impossible. Due to the conscious engaging with, and eventual transformation of, my most challenging structural limitations, the positive effects of having attained Difficult Posture X reverberate to deeper layers of my being for a significant period of time afterwards. My overall understanding of the dynamics of how the practice works on the human organism deepens as a result. There aren’t any other teachers out there who would force me to encounter these blind spots within myself through the necessity of encountering Difficult Posture X, and I wouldn’t have the willpower or motivation to do it on my own without it being made a requirement by a teacher. This is one of the main reasons that I return to practice with Sharathji each year.
My focus for this trip was the intimidating third series posture Gandha Berundasana. After returning home at the end of the previous trip, I realized that if Sharathji continued to give me new postures at the standard pace he has developed with me, I would probably reach Gandha Berundasana at the end of this trip. Gandha is a physically challenging posture, but it is the psychological intimidation which makes it the most difficult posture in the series for me.
I first learned Gandha Berundasana more than a decade ago with my former teacher, Rolf. At that time, I did not have the ability to attain the final stage of the posture on my own, so my teacher would put me into the posture every day, by holding my legs for me while I brought my arms around to catch them. I practiced Gandha Berundasana with Rolf in this way for several trips over a period of a few years, but I never cultivated the ability to practice it on my own, at home. Without assistance, I would find it too intimidating, and eventually left it out of my practice altogether. At the end of my previous trip with Sharathji, in August 2018, I hadn’t attempted to practice Gandha Berundasana since my last trip with Rolf, which was in 2013. I realized that I would have to re encounter the posture soon enough in my practice with Sharathji and I wondered what his expectations would be for it. Few people develop the ability to do the full version of it, and some do get moved past the posture without having attained the ability to catch the feet without assistance.
Sharathji has always set very high standards for me, and I realized that Gandha Berundasana would be no exception. Gandha Berundasana thus became my Difficult Posture X for 2018/2019. I began to work on it at home in earnest, not really expecting to attain the final version of the posture on my own, but hoping to at least gain some experiential familiarity with it before I had to attempt it in Mysore. I surprised myself by cultivating the ability to bring my left arm forward and to catch my left foot with my hand within a few weeks of commencing my daily attempts. Bringing the second arm forward was a completely different story. Once the second arm comes forward, the psychological vulnerability comes into play, as the entire body is then in an extremely compromised position, with all of the weight of the body being born on the upper chest and chin. If the posture is done incorrectly, the breath can be completely cut off and blacking out is a possibility. This happened to me once when I was practicing it with Rolf, and I have heard of other practitioners who had a similar experience. Not wanting to repeat this sort of experience added to the intimidation factor for me.
It took me at least another month to gain the courage and skill to bring the second arm forward. The breakthrough came when I watched a few YouTube videos of advanced practitioners who can do the posture well (thanks again to those who shared….) Sharathji’s own technique of bringing the second arm forward very quickly appealed to me the most when I watched his third series practice video, so I decided to apply this method in my practice the following morning. When the moment came to try, I whipped my second arm around, and was happy to find that it worked – for a moment. In the next moment I lost my balance and fell sideways out of the posture, which is quite dangerous considering the compromised position and weight distribution of the body and neck. Fortunately, I didn’t injure my neck in the fall, but I did land heavily and uncontrolled on one foot and bruised a toe, which resulted in the necessity of modifying my practice for a few days afterwards.
Once a particular physical movement is completed for the first time, it sticks in the cellular memory of the body, and one is much more likely to be able to complete the movement again on subsequent attempts. From the next morning onward, I was able to bring the second arm forward every day, with greater control and no sense of risk of falling.
The final step, of catching the right foot with my right hand took the longest for me to attain. After bringing the right arm forward, the right foot still hovered what seemed like a vast distance from my hand. Due to the intensity of the stimulation of the nerves in the compromised position, I didn’t feel I could stay there very long and there wasn’t much progress in either lifting the hand up or bringing the foot down. I remained stuck at this stage for at least a month or two. Eventually, my comfort in that particular stage of the process increased and I made some progress by playing around with how I shifted my weight on my chest. I learned that I was allowing my weight to fall back too far. This helped with the sense of comfort and balance, but to bring my right foot down, I had to allow my weight to tilt more forward. I also learned that by pulling my left foot closer to the ground with my hand and then more forward and away from my head, the weight of my entire body could shift more forward, and subsequently, more arch would become possible in the right hip and leg. I also began to cultivate the ability to move my right arm and shoulder more freely by focusing on deepening the mobility of the shoulders in twists like Bharadvajasana, Supta Urdhva Pada Vajrasana and Viranchyasana B. Increasing the mobility of the shoulder and chest in these posture felt very similar to what was required to move the shoulder and arm more freely in Gandha Berundasana.
Finally, about 3 or 4 months after I began to work on Gandha Berundasana, my right hand caught the right foot, and I had completed the posture. For the next week, I was able to complete the posture each time I attempted it. I then had a scheduled trip to Canada, which is a long and exhausting journey from Bali, to visit my family for a month. I was surprised to find that my ability to complete the full posture hadn’t been lost in the 30 hours of air travel and arrival in sub-zero early spring weather. I retained the ability to complete the posture fully for the following three weeks in Canada, but then I suddenly lost the ability in my final week in my home country. The series of return flights to Bali was tougher physiologically than the flights to Canada were, and I arrived feeling stiff and exhausted. When my physical condition did not open back up very much after a few days of settling in, it became clear that I was entering into a “pull back and integration phase”, which often follows a period of deeper opening. After more than 15 years of daily Ashtanga practice, one becomes accustomed to the dynamics of the cycles of structural shifting and integration.
When one enters into a phase of tightening up, as the structural intelligence of the body integrates the deeper changes that have begun to manifest, it is good to respect the process by letting go of any attachment one may have felt to the achievements and feelings of the open state, and to work intelligently with the new reality of the body as it manifests each day. In this case, I continued to practice only intermediate series for much longer than I usually would after a period of travel. Intermediate felt like enough of a struggle and third series felt completely unpalatable. A few weeks later, I began to work back into what had been my regular practice of the preceding six months, which was all of intermediate and third series up to Gandha Berundasana. Once I started working on Gandha again, I was back to ground zero, and I had to repeat the entire process of learning the posture step by step as I had done six months earlier. It took another three months of patient daily application to arrive back at the stage where I was catching both of my feet and completing the posture. By this point, it was June or July, and I had two or three months of being able to execute the posture fully again before my trip to Mysore in October.
The three months of practice at home before my Mysore trip were quite strong. A deeper phase of structural change and integration was taking place and I had been maintaining a long daily practice of nearly two full series on three of my practice days per week for over one year. The opening and strengthening felt good, but there were also the inevitable transient aches that come with deeper integration, such pains in the ribs (especially on the right side) and shoulders. The right side of my body had changed significantly from the process of teaching myself how to catch the feet in Gandha. I was a little bit concerned that I might experience another “pull back” or burnout once I reached Mysore, but fortunately this did not happen at all. In fact, my practice in Mysore became much easier than it had been at home, and all the little aches disappeared completely within my first two weeks of practice in Mysore. Starting practice at 4:45 am in Mysore means I get to sleep in a few hours longer than I do at home, and being able to go home after practice and relax, instead of going to teach for several hours probably contributed to the increased ease that I felt my practice in Mysore. I felt strong, open and vibrant right from day one in the new shala.
After the customary first few days of primary and then intermediate series practice, I started my full practice in the second week. Sharathji began giving me new postures right away, and also helped me with catching at the end of backbending a little more frequently than he had in previous trips. For most of the trip, he did catching with me at least 3 days per week, leaving the assistants to do it only occasionally. Deepening my catching became the focus of the trip and my interactions with him. The postures of third series that he added to my practice each week seemed to be superfluous, and he rarely even watched me perform them before giving me the next ones, but catching my legs seemed to be something he was adamant about deepening with me.
Catching has never been easy for me. My previous teacher did not do it very often with me because his wife was strongly opposed to the procedure altogether. So, when I began practice with Sharathji in 2014, I had only rudimentary experience with catching. Catching is a big focus in Mysore, as those who have practiced with Sharathji know. Over the five trips, I developed in catching significantly. I went from catching my ankles and lower calves on the first trip, to regularly being able to catch just below my knees, and being able to stand and straighten my legs on my own by the time I was at the end of my third trip. A few times on my third and fourth trip, Sharathji adjusted my fingers right up onto my kneecaps, which was terrifying. The first time I was successful in holding my kneecaps was towards the end of my third trip when we did catching at the end of led intermediate. Sharathji was accustomed to me bailing out of the posture pretty quickly when he moved my hands higher up, so this time when he put my hands on my kneecaps he loudly commanded, “Now STAY! Everyone is watching.” It worked, and I managed to balance holding my kneecaps for a good 5 – 10 breaths on that day. Each new stage of development in catching has always felt very healthy for me structurally, and no one is better at adjusting this posture than Sharathji.
Holding the kneecaps was a rarity in my third and fourth trips, and usually he left me at the standard holding place of just below the knees. This trip it was different. By the middle of the second week, he was already bringing my hands onto my kneecaps. The first time he did it, I didn’t feel ready, and I bailed out. We smiled at each other when I came up and he asked, “Why? It came so nicely today.” As he pressed me in Paschimottanasa, he jovially inquired “Why you fear so much?” The next day he tried again and this time I disregarded my habitual fear reaction and I managed to stay and hold my kneecaps. Sharathji is correct about the fear. Once I let go of the fear reaction and try my best to work with the adjustment, I experience the reality that there is nothing physiological which prevents me from being capable of it. It is the aversion to the intense feeling in the nervous system that drives me to avoid it. This is the wisdom of a teacher like Sharathji, who can see exactly what one is capable of, and expects one to encounter whatever samskaras are preventing one from achieving one’s full potential.
From the second week onward, catching the knees became the standard each time that Sharathji did it with me. As with each of the previous stages of catching, the more often I did it, the easier it was to become comfortable and to stay there. Sharathji is also adamant about squeezing my elbows inwards while holding my legs. It always feels great on my spine and shoulders and being adjusted skillfully into catching is truly the best way to end the practice. For most of this trip, I was finishing after a long sequence of apanic postures, and the deep catching was a wonderful counter posture to end with.
It soon became clear that the focus on catching was preparing me for the deep backbending in Viparita Salabhasana and Gandha Berundasana, which were soon to come. This is another aspect of Sharathji’s teaching that I admire. He isn’t interested in simply adjusting postures. He teaches according to a long term plan that he makes for each student, given the amount of time the student is spending with him on any particular trip. He is also aware of whether he will see a student again on a subsequent trip or not. He knew that he was going to take me up to Gandha on this trip, and his focus for the weeks before that happened was not so much on the other third series postures that he was giving me, but on cultivating the necessary depth in my backbending for me to be able to perform Gandha well.
There were very few backbends in my practice for most of the trip. After the backbending sequence at the beginning of intermediate series, the subsequent two thirds of intermediate series, and then the first two thirds of third series are all apanic postures, featuring mainly leg behind the head variations and arm balances. In order to help myself in the process of going deeper into catching at the end of this long apanic sequence of postures, I focused strongly on pulling my sacrum and tailbone deep into my body with each and every upward facing dog posture that I did in my practice. It was a nice meditative thread to sustain, and the degree of mobility I could cultivate in the sacrum and tailbone would be a good yardstick to measure how I would feel in backbending at the end of my practice. As long as I could feel a natural ease in the mobility of my sacrum and tailbone in my upward facing dogs, I knew it would be no problem to straighten my legs and move deeper into catching at the end of the practice.
Sharathji added the two Viparita Dandasana variations, which are the first backbends of third series, near the beginning of my second month of practice. It was a relief to have this extra preparation for catching after stopping on the Viranchyasana postures for the preceding week or two. As soon as Viparita Dandasana was added to my practice, Sharathji upped the ante for catching. After bringing my hands to the customary position at the bottom of the knees, and then waiting for me to straighten my legs, instead of bringing my hands onto my kneecaps–as I had grown accustomed to in the preceding weeks–he brought my hands entirely above my knees, so that all of my fingers were on my thighs. After the first hand was moved into position, my mind reacted with a familiar “You’ve got to be kidding! No way!” sort of revolt, but having grown accustomed to pushing my limits over the preceding weeks of practice with Sharathji, I was able to remain fairly calm and was shocked to find that it was physically possible. After the second hand was brought into position, I was able to remain there for a few breaths, though my balance was shaky, and Sharathji had to keep his hands on my hips to steady me. When I came out of the posture, I had a unique and interesting experience. I felt like something “snapped” energetically somewhere deep inside me. There was no physical pain or discomfort, but my entire body felt like it was made of rubber. The structural tension that I was accustomed to feeling in my relationship with gravity had been completely shifted and I felt loose and untethered. Although it wasn’t a painful feeling, it was mildly disturbing to have the foundation and base of my relationship with gravity suddenly vanish, as if a rug had been pulled out from under my feet. I walked over to the finishing area with wobbly rubber limbs. By the time I was done with finishing postures I felt relatively normal, and the wobbly feeling was replaced with the familiar pleasant feeling of deeper structural opening.
I felt relatively “normal” in the next morning’s practice, but I was not surprised to find that I couldn’t lift out of Karandavasana. In my previous trip, I had also found that deepening my catching had inhibited my ability to lift out of Karandavasana. This is natural, because catching and Karandavasana are polar opposites in their physiological and energetic patterning. On this trip, it was only that particular morning where I could not do it. By the following morning, the changes had been sufficiently integrated and I could once again lift up out of Karandavasana. From then onward, catching with my hands completely above the kneecaps became the standard when Sharathji did catching with me. I no longer experienced the wobbly rubber man effect after the first time.
Interestingly, he kept me on Viparita Dandasana for two weeks, which was the longest stretch of this trip that I did not receive new postures. In the second last week of the trip, he added Viparita Salabhasana and Gandha Berundasana. On the day he gave me those postures, I had already finished Viparita Dandasana and all of the finishing backbending. I had done three backbends on the ground, three drop backs, three tic toks and I was in the middle of executing Vrischkasana, when I heard him say, “Tsk tsk….what did you do?” I knew he was talking to me, even though I couldn’t move my head to see him from the compromised position that I was in. I came down and looked at him and he asked me again what I did. “Viparita Dandasana”, I replied.
“Show me B”, he said. Having already done all of intermediate series, three quarters of third series, and the entire backbending sequence, I was shaky and exhausted. But, it was easy enough to pop back into Viparita Dandasana B. Afterwards, I looked up and Sharathji was nowhere to be seen. I knelt on my mat for a few seconds, unsure of what to do, and then I saw him walking back towards me. “Show me”, he repeated. So, I did Viparita Dandasana B for the third time of the morning. When I finished, he said “Viparita Salabhasana”.
Though my focus for the past year had been Gandha Berundasana, and I consider it much more psychologically intimidating than the posture that precedes it, Viparita Salabhasana is more difficult for me in terms of flexibility. Though I had managed to teach myself how to catch the legs in Gandha Berundasana, I hadn’t developed the mobility to touch my feet onto my head in Viparita Salabhasana. Viparita Salabhasana requires a different kind of movement than Gandha, and this movement has always been very difficult for me. The posture is less psychologically intimidating due to having the support of the arms behind the body, but I feel like it does require more flexibility in the spine and hips. Gandha is a more complex combination of flexibility, balance, co-ordination and courage.
All of the extra backbending that I had done that morning was exhausting, but it was a blessing because, along with the sustained preparation of all the deep catching over the preceding six weeks, it created the conditions where I couldn’t have possibly been more prepared to attempt one of my most difficult postures than I was in that moment. Whether Sharathji had made me do the extra repetitions of Viparita Dandasana and the whole backbending sequence first on purpose, or whether it was just a fluke is unknown, but he certainly did have a plan to prepare me for this by relentlessly pushing my limits in catching over the preceding six weeks.
Not surprisingly, it was the easiest and deepest Viparita Salabhasana that I have ever done. As I began to work my way into the posture for the first time in two months, I found entirely new qualities and degrees of movement. I was shocked to find my feet plant themselves on my head, with my toes in my eyes. Sharathji had been watching me intently, and demanded “heels together!” I lifted my feet a bit, pressed my heels together and drew my knees in, and was then able to reposition my feet on my head again. After I jumped back to Chaturanga, I looked at him, and he silently made the motion of moving his arms around as a signal for me to attempt Gandha Berundasana. I made my way into the posture and caught the first foot fairly easily. “Catch the other foot quickly!” he demanded. I was accustomed to taking a few breaths while I gathered my courage before bringing the second arm around. He repeated his demand: “Catch it quickly!” I brought the second arm around and managed to grab my foot immediately. As soon as I had caught my second foot, I saw him turn around and silently walk away. I then did the closing backbending sequence for a second time, to complete what was probably the strongest morning of practice that I had ever had with Sharathji.
A key feature of Sharathji’s style of teaching the Ashtanga system, is to ensure that the foundations are properly and deeply developed, so that the subsequent postures are much more likely to be easily attained. When I had first learned Gandha with my former teacher, I did not have enough foundational development to be able to accomplish the posture, and even when he helped me do it, the intensity of the experience was overwhelming. This is why I had dropped it altogether in the interim years before practicing it with Sharathji. The depth of Sharathji’s understanding of how the system will work on each individual person, is that he is able to prepare you for what is to come, and he feels no hurry, allowing the preparations to take root over time. The five years that he focused intently on catching and backbending in general with me, the preceding one year that I had personally placed so much emphasis on cultivating Gandha in my own home practice, the six weeks of this trip where he was having me catch my legs much deeper than I ever had before, and finally, all the extra backbending preparation (whether it was accidental or not) on the day I did it, led to the moments of finally practicing Viparita Salabhasana and Gandha Berundasana in the shala to be an almost effortless anti-climax. There were times where I had imagined what practicing these postures in the shala with Sharathji would be like, and I never anticipated it would be anything less than extremely intense. In the end, because of the cumulative prep work that had been done, there was no struggle or special emphasis, aside from the fact that Sharathji watched me do them intently that first time.
The only downside to my first day of practicing Viparita Salabhasana and Gandha Berundasana in the shala was that I injured my toe jumping back from Viparita Salabhasana. A confluence of factors contributed to the injury: The fact that I was fatigued from all the extra backbending on that day; the fact that I had not practiced the posture for two months; the fact that I was much deeper into the posture than I had ever been before and due to the unfamiliarity of the increased bend in my body, I had less of the strength and control I was accustomed to experiencing in the jumping back to Chaturanga. The transition from Viparita Salabhasana to Chaturanga Dandasana is always a bit tricky and usually involves a harder landing than in most transitions. On this occasion, I landed extra hard in Chaturanga. It didn’t seem like an injury at first, I simply had a feeling of: “Oh! That was a bit hard on my toes”, but no pain seemed to linger as I carried on with Gandha Berundasana, backbending and finishing. When I got up from relaxation, however, my toe had begun to swell and feel painful and I figured it would be sore for a day or two. Throughout the day the swelling increased dramatically, spread to half of the foot, and the toe itself cycled through most of the colours of the rainbow. I went to a homeopathic doctor around noon and got some arnica cream and pills, and figured I’d have to modify my practice for a few days, as I had when I had fallen out of Gandha and hurt my toe in my learning process at home. It turned out to be more serious than I anticipated, and for the remainder of that week, I was not able to place any weight on my left foot at all while jumping forward or back and had to modify the postures which required me to bear all of my weight on one foot. I still managed to maintain the intensity of my full practice jumping with one leg and it didn’t dampen my mood at all. I even managed to continue my daily 5 km walks around Kukkarahali Lake, albeit at a greatly reduced pace and with a pronounced limp for the subsequent week. After a few days, the swelling began to subside somewhat, the colour began to normalize and I began to be able to bear more weight on the foot and needed to modify less. It’s been slow healing, though. At the time of writing, it has been more than one month since the injury and the base of the toe is still quite swollen, though my movements are 95 percent back to normal. I still avoid landing on it in the most difficult transitions.
I didn’t expect to be moved past Gandha Berundasana on this trip. From what I understood, Sharathji usually likes to keep people on that posture, with a marathon practice of all of intermediate and three quarters of third series for at least one whole cycle between trips. I was surprised when he told me to half-split intermediate the following day. From then onward I would only do either the first or second half of intermediate, on alternating days, before doing all of third series. Even with the added strain of my toe injury, the shortened practice felt rejuvenating and invigorating. I was even more surprised the day after that when he told me to add Hanumanasana the following week, which was the final week of the two month trip. He added a couple more postures in that final week, and I ended the trip on Digasana, which is only four postures away from the end of third series.
The trip ended quite fittingly with the deepest and most stable catching I had done so far. As had become the standard in those final weeks, he placed my hands on my thighs, above my kneecaps, and I was able to stand quite steadily, draw my elbows inwards, and remain stable for a good 10 breaths. “Last Day”, he smiled, as I came up. “Thank you!” I replied.
The trip felt like a maturation of all of the work I have done with Sharathji over the preceding trips. It was my favorite trip, and the smoothest one I have had. One final reflection to share about this experience is that at age 44, I feel that I am still making deep progress in my practice on all levels, including strength, flexibility and stability. I hear a number of longer term practitioners talk about how they are “feeling their age” and that something is lost when they reach their late thirties and forties. I have not experienced this at all. I also “feel my age”, but this is not a negative or detrimental feeling when it comes to my asana practice. I do feel that a certain…..vigour…..has declined over the past decade or so, but other important factors, like concentration, stability, and overall maturity have increased over the same time period, and the net effect of the increase in these positive qualities far outweighs the decline in vigour. Overall, my practice feels orders of magnitude stronger and more open than it ever has. Vigour carries immaturity and recklessness with it, and this leads to many pitfalls. I don’t miss that, most of the time. The “sthira bhaga” (steady strength) that has come with aging is something I value more than immature vigour, and this is why I continue to make deep progress in my asana practice.
I feel that lifestyle factors have a major influence on the sense of well-being or lack thereof in the fourth and fifth decades of life and beyond. I can understand how teachers in their forties and fifties who live a lifestyle of constant travel, consume a less than ideal diet and add excessive strain to their bodies through engaging in frequent asana displays (outside of their usual practice routine) for Instagram and YouTube would feel the negative effects of aging on their asana practice much more readily than I do. Anyone who leads a busy, high stress lifestyle is more susceptible to a sense of decline as age increases.
Stability in my life, which includes travelling as infrequently as possible, has become increasingly important for me over the past decade. The subtleties of structural transformation and integration require a stable background in order to manifest in a way that is healthy and assimilable. I love the feeling of landing back at home in Bali after travelling and realizing that I won’t have to move for the next six to nine months. This is when I feel like I can really settle into myself and sink deeply into the intricacies of my practice. It is one of the main reasons that I almost always decline invitations to teach workshops in other places. There are other reasons that I don’t enjoy short term teaching gigs in new places, but the disruption to my own lifestyle and my own practice is first and foremost.
It boils down to a question of emphasis. I prioritize my personal practice and I still enjoy engaging in a longer and intensive daily practice. I work my teaching habits around that emphasis. I still practice one and a half to two full series on three or four of my six practice days per week. I completed fourth series with Rolf Naujokat in 2013, but since I started practicing with Sharathji in 2014, I’ve chosen to mainly focus on what I am practicing with him in my personal practice at home. Usually, in between trips to Mysore, I practice what I think Sharathji will give me in the shala on my subsequent trip. That means that over the past year, at home, I maintained a daily practice of all of intermediate, and third series up to Gandha Berundasana on at least 3 days of the week. For the other 3 practice days, I practiced one series – one day each for primary, intermediate and third. There is no possibility that I could have sustained this kind of practice if I was travelling around and teaching in different places, or if I was engaging in additional display sessions for Instagram and YouTube. Maintaining a high level of depth and intensity in personal practice before teaching for several hours each morning requires being grounded in one place, and cultivating a disciplined, regular lifestyle and diet. I enjoy this form of asceticism.
From where Sharathji left me at the end of this trip, I will probably start to work back into fourth series in my home practice over the next year. I look forward to this, it should be interesting to revisit fourth series, after all of the changes that have manifested from my practice with Sharathji in the years since I last practiced fourth regularly.
I feel that diet is also extremely important in maintaining a high physical and energetic level into my forties. Diet is a vast subject, which is far beyond the scope of this already lengthy article. I began writing an article about my dietary explorations some time ago, and hopefully I will return and finish that article in the future.
In brief, I eat a vegan diet, based on nutrient dense whole foods with approximately 50/50 ratio of raw and cooked food. I avoid all processed foods, most common allergens, most forms of sugar (including “natural” sugar) and most kinds of fermented food. I rarely consume heavy pulses or nuts. I consume moderate, but not excessive, amounts of starchy grains and vegetables. I consume a moderate, but not excessive, amount of fruits. The most important and prominent components of my diet are fresh fibrous vegetables, lighter legumes, “pseudograins” and seeds. My diet tends to be alkaline overall. Brendan Brazier’s “Thrive Diet” is the published dietary system which is closest to my own. Brendan has written several books about his Thrive Diet, and I feel it is conducive to deep yoga practice.
I feel that it is also important for Ashtanga practitioners, and especially teachers, to monitor the effects of the quantity of food that they eat. Most people are aware that overeating is detrimental to progress in the practice, but undereating, or following an overly restrictive diet, will also lead to weakness and inhibit muscle recovery. Undereating over a long period of time will certainly contribute to a sense of decline as one ages.
Appropriate quantity and timing of food are highly individual and dependent on one’s personal constitution. I have a very rapid metabolic rate and need to eat a high quantity of the right kinds of food in order to sustain my high level of physical and mental activity. I never skip dinner, and I would rather eat dinner too late, than not at all. My last meal of the day is typically around 6 – 6:30 pm, and I begin my practice around 2 am. I finish my practice at 4 am, and take a long relaxation until 4:30 am. I then have two hours before I start teaching at 6:30 am. Those two hours are dedicated to preparing a calorie dense and nourishing breakfast – typically buckwheat porridge (or raw dehydrated buckwheat granola when I can get it), with lots of nutrient dense toppings and a fruit and herb smoothie, followed by a nuclear strength coffee. I then shower and drive to class.
Many Ashtanga teachers don’t leave any time gap between the end of their personal practice and the beginning of teaching. Their first meal of the day doesn’t occur until after teaching, when they have already engaged in 4 to 6 hours of heavy physical and mental work. I believe that this lifestyle will weaken and deplete a person if sustained over a long period of time. I have witnessed older Ashtanga teachers become weaker and unhealthy due to this lack of self-care. Many give up regular Mysore style teaching because of it. Paying more attention to diet – especially in the important junction between practice and teaching – is a way to prevent this.
I use a lot of herbal and whole food supplements, and this experimentation becomes increasingly important as my age increases. I focus on three categories of herbal supplements – anti-inflammatory, adaptogen and tonic strengtheners. My favorite anti-inflammatory foods include cissus triangularis, varieties of the ginger family and turmeric. In the adaptogen category, ginseng, maca and shilajit are my favorites. For tonic strengtheners, muira puama, thai black ginger (not easy to find – if you are heading my way from Thailand and want to bring me some, I would be grateful!) and tribulus terrestris are the most effective for me. When I am consuming any of these strengthening herbs on a regular basis, there is a tangible increase in strength and stamina that runs through my entire practice. Many powerful herbs and foods overlap between the three above mentioned categories. I also include a high quality vegan protein powder on a daily basis, blended into a smoothie with homemade coconut cream, bananas, coconut water, and a few of the above mentioned herbs. Vega Sport Performance Protein (formulated by Brendan Brazier) is the best one available on the market, and I am grateful to the many people who bring tubs of this to Bali for me. One needs to be careful with protein supplements, as many contain inferior sources of protein and contain filler ingredients which can upset the digestive system and increase inflammation in the body. Whey protein in particular should be completely avoided. On this most recent trip to Mysore I also began to experiment with adding pure L-glutamine powder in several doses throughout the day. This seemed to have a positive effect overall. I am currently experimenting with L-arginine, and 2:1:1 BCAA powders as well. These amino acids are also found in any good quality protein powder supplement, as well as in a healthy regular vegan diet. I have found that adding additional supplementation is quite useful for supporting a 2 – 3 hour advanced daily Ashtanga practice. There is much, much more I could say about diet and supplementation, but I will save all of that for its own dedicated discussion in another article.
It should also be noted that the aging process is undoubtedly different for men and for women. I think much of what I have written above applies generally to both sexes, but the intricacies of the different hormonal changes would certainly lead to different experiences and probably to different foods and herbs that would be most helpful. As always, one’s own phenomenal experience is the best teacher.
A final factor that I attribute to helping maintain my strong asana practice is my daily pranayama practice. I’ve been practicing pranayama for nearly as long as I have been practicing asana. My current pranayama routine was taught to me over a 5 year period by Rolf Naujokat approximately 10 years ago, and according to him, it is the pranayama sequence that K. Pattabhi Jois taught to his advanced students in the 1990s. The entire sequence takes about 45 minutes to complete, and I usually do it in the late morning or early afternoon. It has a powerful rejuvenative influence and it brings immense depth and subtly to the cultivation of breath and internal form in the asana practice itself. It is said that pranayama practice becomes stronger with age, and I can attest to that. For me, it works hand in hand with the asana practice, and the two are part and parcel of a single process of self-cultivation.
In summary, my fifth trip of practice with Sharath Jois was my best trip so far. I enjoyed practice in the new shala immensely, and my own asana practice has never felt better. I am deeply grateful for the influence and guidance of Sharathji on the evolution of my practice, and my respect for him as a teacher and as a person grows with each trip. I look forward to the months ahead of continued self-exploration in my practice, in the dark, damp early morning hours at home in Bali, and I look forward to my next trip with Sharathji in Mysore.
Thank you to Clayton Loizou and Greg Steward for helpful editing and suggestions about the article.