Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Reconnecting with my spirit

I crept into the Yoga class, exhausted physically and mentally. It was a challenging and uncertain time for me.

Over the months, difficulties and ill health had slowly been accumulating and I knew I had to make some changes or else I would fall seriously ill. It was as if a wall had come up all round, blocking my progress in everything I did. In a state of helplessness I turned to my friend, a wise and highly skilled practitioner of Five Element Acupuncture. The trouble was, she finally said, that I had lost touch with my spirit. In a way I had lost direction.

“What do I do?” I asked her. She told me I needed to begin with something that was not easy for me: to disregard people’s views, opinions and suggestions and look deep within myself to find out what I wanted to do.

The first and most difficult step was to give up my research directed study of Ayurveda – something I had spent several years moving towads. From the beginning it had been a stressful and obstruction-filled course, placing me in an environment of negativity and frustration. I was relieved to let go of it, despite having to answer so many “Why’s”. Stretching out before me now was a completely blank set of days. How would I know what to fill them with? How could I listen to my spirit – my natural, innermost inclination? How would I know I was not charging off in the wrong direction once more?

I began by doing things I enjoyed – I returned to writing, cooking and Yoga. I had been practicing some kind of Yoga for a long time, but my teachers said they could not do much more for me. They suggested I go elsewhere, to the main centres where they had studied and I was not sure I wanted to. I looked around. I practiced on my own with the help of some books, but I felt this was not sufficient. If the system was really working, then why was I in such poor shape? Why was I not feeling the benefits that many books described?

As my healing was a priority at this stage, I began a serious search for a Yoga school of my choice. As with most aspects of my life, I did not know what I was looking for but I knew what I did not want. I made out a small list of queries, contacted and met many different teachers in Bangalore and still I felt that I had to contact others. I had recently read a book on Shri Krishnamacharya and felt that perhaps I needed to visit Chennai or Mysore to see the kind of Yoga he had taught. However, I was reluctant to leave home and my partly settled lifestyle just to do this. Luckily, as I was wondering what to do, my husband pointed out a newspaper article mentioning Shri M. S. Vishwanath (Masterji), a teacher in Bangalore who had spent many years in Mysore, learning from Shri Pattabhi Jois – Shri Krishnamacharya’s first student.

None of my acquaintances had heard of him. I did an internet search and found a web site. “Most of the information seems to be for foreigners,” I said, in a rigid and dismissive way. But my husband suggested that I go and find out for myself and I decided that there was no harm in meeting him.

And so it was, late one morning, that I crept into the class just as a couple of students were filing out after a Prananyama session. They smiled pleasantly at me and left. I stepped into the empty hall with sunlight pouring in, and took an instant liking to the environment. It felt calm, clean and cheerful. Yoga mats (the first time I had seen them) were rolled up and neatly stacked on a rack at the back of the room. I felt this would be a wonderful place to practice Yoga.

Masterji appeared, looking (uncharacteristically) stern and serious. It was evident that he thought deeply about his subject, even as I went through my usual mundane queries – could the practice help me get better? How long would it take? And so on. The answers he gave were not at all specific, very different in style from many other teachers and somehow seemed very balanced and reasonable to me. The news was not very encouraging though – the class was at the other end of Bangalore from my house – it was too far for a regular, rigorous schedule. Masterji suggested I look at other options first.


(Picture : Masterji helping Masafumi Kunito in Utthita Hasta Pādāngushthāsana)

I spent a few days doing that and also looking within. I knew that I very much wanted to try learning in such an environment and I felt that there was a lot I could learn there, but was not sure if I would be able to. I finally decided to go by my inner feelings and do my best.

And so began my new routine – learning so many things! Learning to wake up before the crack of dawn every day, learning to drive, learning just how stiff and unyielding my body and mind could be…

I was fortunate to begin studying at a time when there were a large number of students in the teacher’s training programmes taught by Masterji. Many students had tremendous physical flexibility and strength and a pleasant demeanour; it was nice to watch and learn from them in addition to receiving instructions directly from Masterji.


(Picture : Masterji helping Masafumi Kunito in Marichyāsana I)

The students lived next door, ate in Masterji and Lakshmi’s kitchen and spent many hours learning and practicing in Masterji’s class. It was a time when Bangalore was a quieter and easier city to live in.

And so, the classes proceeded. I worked my way through the monsoon pains, the winter stiffness, the delightful spring flexibility and the summer cramps. With time, my muscles stopped quivering, nerves stopped shrieking in pain and joints seemed more flexible. I could now attempt many of the asanas of the beginner’s series. After some months, I actually got better and with time, several of my imbalances began to reverse themselves – something none of the conventional doctors could explain. My mind seemed stronger, I felt more settled and comfortable with my life. The wall around me seemed to have disassembled of its own accord.

Over time I saw many different kinds of students with different needs coming, learning and progressing in their own ways. My own family and friends came, with a range of objectives and many found the practice helpful. My husband came to see if it would help his computer, sports and martial art–induced injuries and has continued ever since. My parents, with problems like spondylosis and arthiritis came, to learn a basic set of movements which would keep them healthy. My brother and brother-in-law attended classes while going through periods of tremendous transition and benefited, I think. My uncle, on learning Suryanamaskar from us, managed to restart his golf, after many years.

Meanwhile, we saw Masterji teaching many different students in very different ways and styles and surprisingly, every one felt comfortable with him in their own way. Masterji himself went through ups and downs – falls, fevers, surgery and pain – and we saw him dealing with his own difficulties over time.

(Picture : Masterji observing David Jose Barreto in Setu Bandhāsana)

Now, our challenges are different. We deal with driving in the midst of the emerging Metro construction, surrounded by rash and irate drivers. Our work and activites seem to have changed over time, leading to an increase in travel and other responsibilities. Initially this caused frustration.

“Relax. Do as much as you can. The practice will lead you on,” said Masterji each time I expressed my frustration, and I find that this is so. As far as possible, I adapt my practice to my ever-changing life situation with acceptance, trust and gratitude. Over the years, we have learnt much from Masterji’s instructions. “Relax,” – oft repeated and the hardest to follow. Other simpler instructions were “Keep up the level of electrolytes in the body in summer,” and perhaps the easiest of all, “Don’t park your car under the coconut tree!”

In the past few years, especially during the recent economic downturn and spate of terrorist attacks, foreign travel to India appears to be reduced. Fewer students seem to be visiting the Yoga centre for long term/teacher’s training programmes. This may be partly due to travel advisories, the fact that Bangalore is much more crowded and expensive than it was and also because many more schools have opened in the West, where people can learn Yoga. However, for students who are interested in learning according to their own needs, I find Masterji’s class wonderfully flexible and deep rooted.

After observing myself and other students over several years, I have a few points to put forth, not with the intention of imposing or advising, but in the hope that it may be of use to someone at some time.

Once one finds a school or teacher with whom one is comfortable and satisfied, one should spend enough time in learning all that one can from that source before moving on. Be it Yoga or any other activity, Masterji’s school or any of the other Yoga centres, a certain time investment is required of a serious student to do justice to learning. Each teacher has their distinctive style and views, each student has their own needs and pace and I think one will know from within when one has learnt enough, or when one can transition from being a beginner to an advanced student or teacher.

Regarding Masterji’s classes, in view of the changing city and environment, I think students should probably arrive a couple of days before they plan to begin – to find suitable accommodation (even though they may have booked before hand, they may wish to change), a good arrangement for food (increasingly hard to find) and to gradually get over their travel fatigue.

My own view is that for a serious student (beginner or advanced), it is better not to mix travel and Yoga in the same schedule. Road and air travel induce unique kinds of fatigue and one spends a lot of time recovering. However, I realize that everyone has their own interests, plans and priorities!

Masterji’s class is not a led class, which allows for great freedom and flexibility of learning. However, this means that Masterji also depends on your receptivity, feedback and description to gauge how you feel and your long term aim. Some students are content to practice the series and leave after an hour or hour and a half, even if there is enough time and scope to learn more. Some students have very ambitious learning curves and push themselves into asanas that they might not be quite ready for, ignoring many others that they are in a position to learn. Some students have strong and preconceived views of different styles. I am also a student, with my own set of weaknesses. But I would like to emphasize here that this is not a class where the teacher is constantly talking and driving your attention to your body or mind. Much of the class is conducted in a comfortable silence. There is no one to follow, except yourself. It helps if one does not rely too much on one’s eyes or mind, but just relaxes, becomes receptive to the external and internal teacher and enjoys the flow of the practice. This does not come at the expense of alertness for Masterji rarely repeats his instructions and corrections, unless asked. Therefore, it is helpful to clear one’s doubts during or soon after the practice and also to watch others who are able to do some of the movements well so as to fully understand the root and method of the movement. At some of these moments, when preconceived notions suddenly drop, one experiences the beauty and quiet exhileration of Yoga.

(Pictures below : Raghavan doing Vishwāmitrāsana (name sometimes used interchangeably with Vasishthāsana) and Ushtrāsana and (extreme top of blog) doing Krounchāsana).

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