By Vanessa Menendez-Covelo In the summer of 2005 I travelled to Mysore, Karnataka, India to spend three months studying yoga at Sri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (then known as Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute). I had discovered Ashtanga yoga in early 2003 during a trip to San Francisco and was instantly hooked. For the next couple of years I developed my practice, first from books and DVDs and then within the Camyoga community.
I visited Mysore for the first time in 2004, but a month there felt like not enough time to absorb and incorporate Guruji and Sharath's teaching and everyone kept telling me that "first month paining, second month tired, third month flying". So I planned for a longer stay of a minimum of three months with an open return ticket should I wish to stay for longer.
The preparations were straightforward: you had to send a letter of intent to the shala (I actually skipped this step!) to which you were not to expect a response. The next step was to book my flight to Bangalore and arrange for a car to drive me to Mysore. At the time, the highway between Bangalore and Mysore wasn't there yet and the road was bumpy and quite perilous. I arrived in Bangalore well past midnight and even though it was my second time, I was still unprepared for how overwhelming it can be to walk out of the door to dozens if not hundreds of Indian men waiting for passengers or trying to pick up some transportation business on the spot.
There had been a mixup with my arrival date and I had to negotiate a price for a new car, extortionately expensive for India but still within the parameters of cheap in terms of British pounds. Four hours later I arrived in Mysore just as the sun set up. I had booked three days of accommodation in a lovely guest house and it didn't take me long to find a great duplex apartment not far from the shala, to share with another yoga student. Being split over two floors, it provided us with privacy since each one of us had a bedroom, bathroom and sitting room but we still benefited from each other's company. The most prized piece of furniture in this flat was an archaic washing machine that you had to fill up using a hose. All this luxury cost me £70 per month!
This was probably one of the busiest summers in the shala for a long time; hundreds of students were there to celebrate Guruji's 90th birthday. Guruji was born on the full moon of Guru Purnima in 1915, which was considered a very auspicious day. For his 90th birthday no expense was spared: all the yoga students were invited to two days of celebrations that involved food, music, charity events, food, and oh did I mention food? Most students dressed in Indian clothes. I had bought two sarees for the ocassion, one in pink and another one in red and green, which I wore with a silk blouse and a cotton petticoat, colour coordinated bangles (12 in each wrist) and jasmine on my hair. Still, it didn't stop a few Indian women from pointing and laughing at the white girl trying to not trip over her clothes on the way back from the party.
In the background of preparing for the party and taking a course on Ayurvedic massage therapy, my yoga practice was developing. It didn't take Sharath long to realize that my nemesis pose was Supta Kurmasana and as Mysore style practice goes, I was instructed to stop my practice at this pose every day. I didn't mind very much because to be honest, it looked so bad: my knees were bent at what felt like 90 degrees, my shoulders refused to slid under my legs, my hands were a mile away from each other and do not get me started on the distance between my ankles. In a Mysore room, Supta Kurmasana is one of the adjustments you are always expected to get, since it is very difficult to get your legs behind your head unless you enter the pose from Dwi Pada, which only Second Series students are allowed to do. So every day I lay there in Kurmasana, feeling the weight of my legs pressing on my arms, quite miserable until Guruji, Sharath or Saraswati came along and tried to wrestle me into the pose, not always successfully.
But Mysore did its magic and little by little the pose came along. It was a very interesting process of letting go and observing the interesting physical side effects. For example, every time Sharath adjusted me I would lose my otherwise very healthy appetite for most of the day. No one, including myself, could understand why this happened. My theory is that Sharath's super strong adjustments were stimulating my inner organs including my pancreas which had some scarring from a horseback riding accident when I was a teenager. With time, this side effect slowly disappeared and once he could tie me in a tidy little knot on a daily basis he started giving me poses until I completed the Primary series during my third month in Mysore.
The rest of the time when I wasn't practicing I was mostly eating, sleeping or talking yoga with the other students, hundreds of them from all corners of the world; some came in groups but most, like myself, came alone and soon made friends. We all had the same passion for this yoga and many had been visiting Mysore regularly for many years. A favourite yoga student hangout was the pool at the Southern Star; Tina and Anu's cafes fed us well with healthy, safe (you have to be careful with the water!) vegetarian food and there were plenty of bookshops and clothes shops downtown to keep us entertained. Many students enrolled in Sanskrit, chanting or Sutras classes, and there were plenty of bodywork treatments to be had for a fraction of the price.
My favourite one was the castor oil massage at the Three Sisters, where you would lie in a plastic sheet on the floor of a hut, with only a cotton cloth to protect your modesty, while Harini oiled you up from head to toe and then, hanging from a rope, walked all over you, digging her heels deeply in those very sore yoga spots: hamstrings, glutes, upper back. Brutal, but very effective!
I had initially set out to stay somewhere between three and six months but once my third month was over, I felt ready to go back home. I now had an established Primary series practice and wanted to take it back to "the real world". My time in Mysore was instrumental in helping me decide what direction I wanted my to take in my life, and it strengthened my faith in this wonderful practice that, if done with faith and devotion...all is coming.