The Mysore Style Practice
This article seeks to give an overview about the common features of the Mysore Style practice. A little bit of history, how the practice actually work, some common problems associated with it all and finally what is there to be learnt from practicing in a prevailing silence? We will then investigate a little into the concept of improvement, the importance of the breath and finally the sweet notion of letting go. Who is letting go of what and what does it actually mean to come home to a deeper integrated experience of Yoga. This article is thus a simple attempt to address the Mysore style practice and articulate some of its many features. If you have not yet tried a class we encourage you to go and find out for yourselves, because no words can really do justice to a proper personal experience of the practice, but here follows some personal experiences about it all:
A little overview
For those of you who have no associations with the name Mysore, it is a place in South India located in the state of Karnataka 150km south west of Bangalore. The Mysore Kingdom was the 2nd largest kingdom in India prior to Independence in 1947. In the early 1930's it was ruled by Maharaja Krishnaraja Woodiyar who had a great interest in yoga and dedicated a Yoga Shala for Tirumalai Krishnamacharya to look after. The Yoga taught in this Shala was later to become extremely influential for many of the later developments of yoga in the west. Many of the existing schools today therefore trace their lineage back to this source in Mysore. There are indeed many legends and myths about what actually existed before this Mysore tradition, but for now, let's leave that for another discussion and focus on what developed in Mysore in the early 1930's.
Krishnamacharya had many famous students like BKS Iyengar, Mahadeva Bhatt, Pattabhi Jois and later TKV Desikachar, AG Mohan and Srivatsa Ramaswamy, etc when he eventually moved to Chennai. But in the early 30's in Mysore supposedly only one style of Yoga was taught, better known today as the Ashtanga Yoga method taught by Pattabhi Jois. According to the Yoga Makaranda, a book written by Krishnamachyaray in 1935 there were certain numbers of Vinyasas to be performed with every postures and all of the postures had a particular sequence structured into four series of gradual difficulty.
However, when Krishnamacharya left Mysore after India's independence and the patronage from the Maharaja stopped, Pattabhi Jois continued teaching this method in a similar way at the Sanskrit College in Mysore up to his retirement in 1973. Right before that time the first stream of westerners had just begin to trickle in and they were all taught by Pattabhi Jois' in his own house in Laxmipuram for the next thirty years until finally a new Yoga Shala was built in Gokulam that was able to accommodate the growing avalanche of foreign students.
Pattabhi jois claims that his teaching method remains exactly the same as he was taught by Krishnamacharya. There was a particular order in which the postures were taught and everybody had to learn, memorize and refine a sequence until further instructions were given. This was supposedly the very foundation that everybody had to go through in order to venture further into the many Yoga-postures. In these early days, more than a handful of people in each class were apparently quite rare so everything became much more focused on personalized attention. Everybody was thus taught a standard set sequence of postures according to their capability and the teacher was there to help each individual to refine it with hands-on adjustments, giving the students an opportunity to explore new territories physically, mentally and emotionally, from the personalized outlook that would arise while within the pose. One would thus repeat the same postures day by day, again and again until something softened from within and allowed new openings, experiences and hopefully a deeper integration to yoga take place, while being within the pose.
This later process developed into a fine art of perfection, not for the sake of just performing postures, but rather using the postures as a tool to surrender the fluctuations of the body/mind/nervous system and experience something that was real at all times and not in a constant flux. As this process became refined a greater experience of Yoga revealed itself.
The source of Mysore Style today is naturally what takes place within Pattabhi Jois' Yoga Shala in Mysore, but a similar style of teaching is taught by many of his students in all of the major cities of the world. Unfortunately many people have associated Mysore style to be only for the most advanced students. This is far from the truth, everybody has to start somewhere, but the problem of today is that many people want to improve instantly and is not ready to give it the patience that it takes. When it comes to the many patterning of the body/mind organism there are no instant fixes but rather an extremely slow gradual process of discovery. It is therefore suggested to first learn the very basics of sun-salutations properly and then gradually some standing postures before one venture into the seated postures that are supposed to challenge the further opening of the body. This process takes time and there is nothing worse then forcing the body/mind into doing what it is not really ready for and by this defeating the very purpose of yoga and bring more disturbances to the body/mind organism rather than purifying it and strengthen it to its utmost capacity to more fully perceive the vibrant potency of spirit - that which is always steadily present beneath our many layers of stuff. So let's just say that a Mysore style practice is the gradual discovery of the many things that bind us and keep us in a fix in so we can eventually come to experience a greater sense of freedom and well-being from within.
Now how does this process actually work?
Well it takes time and although you are doing the same postures in the beginning again and again, over and over again, it will always feel different. What is therefore of important is less about the performance of postures and more about the inner presence of mind in which we are doing them. For a beginner of any subject, as a novices we have little idea of what is really going on and we do our best to master certain patterns until fluidity comes, then things are less forced and being to flow in a new way. This inner flow is what we are trying to develop with a Yoga practice, so we can be more present with what is actually going on rather than be driven by ambitions or desires to control the future, or suppress or neglect our past. Yoga seeks to awaken us to the luminosity of the present moment and since we all need to do something in order to more fully experience that, what yoga wants us to do is to develop a skill in the midst of all our activity and surrender the outcome of our actions and rather develop a greater harmony and acceptance of what is. When that happens, things live up in a new way and instead of exhausting ourselves pushing for change according to our fluctuations of preferences, something is solidified from within and we may enter a more harmonious flow that will support us and help us free up tension and strain in everything we do from physical stretches to the daily duties of our lives.
As mentioned earlier, this practice and the unfolding of Yoga takes time. In a Mysore style class Yoga is being integrated by doing the pose again and again until less effort is required and there will be less strain and tension pulling in various directions preventing us from more fully sinking into what is. But as stated repeatedly, there are no short-cuts and in the beginning all you will probably ever feel is your aches and pains, the great resistance towards change and the occasional deep rest after waking up from a good sleep in shavasana. But as you continue to practice, patiently and steadily something will change, the stale patterns will be dissolved and a greater sense of ease and well being will start to consume your being. And that is indeed a very good approach to make ourselves more receptive to yoga.
Now you may wonder about the methodology of the practice? First you will learn the sun-salutations, standing postures, seated postures, finishing postures etc. These are introduced gradually according to the capability of each student, they are to be memorized and repeated until the stiff patterns of the body/mind soften and then gradually and slowly new postures may be given according to the aptitude of each student. The beauty of a Mysore Style class is that the professional and novice practice side by side. Every body has their own journey to make and the although the external form appear similar, how we relate to it all from within is what makes the difference whether we are gradually awakening a sense of yoga or just trying to prove ourselves in a new form they call yoga. Each of the postures work as brilliant tools to gradually soften the body/mind organism from within and for those that give it time coupled with right attitude, some valuable insights about our innate nature are certainly to follow that may very well be the starting point for a greater inquiry into yoga to begin.
Yoga is less about the physical postures we engage in and more about the way we may actually discover our own inner self in the process. It may be a serious approach as well as lighthearted and funny; the only requirement is that you practice! Then it will all be revealed to you according to your capability to receive it.
Some common problems:
Many people complain they cannot remember the sequence. This is quite normal, unless you have a photographic memory and can grasp everything presented to you; you are just like the rest of us that has a bit of drilling to do before things will stick. Most of us are all physically dyslexic and to play copy cat is of course much easier than actually have to remember how to get in and out of the sequence yourself. But the idea with a Mysore style class is to provide a form and structure where a little bit of Yoga hopefully will seep in.
In a normal led class it's quite customary to just follow the one in front or try to listen to the specific instructions from the teacher. We all need some clear guidance in the beginning of what leg to stretch, bend, twist etc, not to mention the spine and the upper parts of the body. In the preliminary stages of doing these 'yoga' postures, it is quite crucial to have somebody tell us how to move this lump of flesh, bone and fluidity we carry around with us - and just to increase the awareness of it just a little can be a marvelous thing.
Ok, now repeating certain physical patterns again and again may bring about magnificent improvement to the physical body and as our familiarity grows, so may also our subtle perceptivity to the inner state of things. After some time, less awareness will be spent on how to perform the poses and more attention is given to how we actually breathe in the midst of it all and we can spend more time contemplating the state of our mind as we are engaged with it all. The quiet introspection of a Mysore style class - as you practice in silence to the sound of your own breath and try your best to relate to whatever tension, strain or fluctuations of mind are presenting themselves in your awareness - may actually be a wonderful opportunity to find a new support from within. Something that is not subject to the endless fluctuations of the mind, bur rather quietly observes it and endures it, whatever it may be. This is the purity of seeing, so conducive toe the experience of yoga, observing the patterns of the body/mind without getting colored by what it sees.
The Silence that prevails
There is also something immensely powerful about the Silence providing in the Mysore room. Our own silence, pregnant with all our past impressions yet also potently aware of the infinity of all that is, and somewhere in the middle while we are working our way through the 'yoga' postures something may present itself that is a little different to all our patterns, conditioning, ambition, hopes, dreams etc. and if we get a little taste of that 'something' all of our external senses and impression may take on a whole different appearance! You may still feel quite stiff and inflexible, but as you learn to listen more attentively inwards you'll soon come to experience that something from within is never stiff and bound, but always free, joyful and radiant. And the funny thing about it is as you do, the external tension and strain softens too, because all the experiencer of the body/mind organism ever really needed was to be acknowledged for what it is, integrated, whole and complete - and untouched by any sensations of pleasure and pain. Free in itself and the very support of the body/mind field, never imprisoned by it, but only the 'indweller' and experiencer for a limited time only called life.
A good way to engage in this process is to first learn a steady form, method or sequence that will present to this inner seer the state of things as they are in our body/mind organism, rather than projecting them into what we would like them to be. For this we need a direct experience, and from that the process may unfold.
The myth of Improvement
Of course we all long for a slight improvement in our practice. A better forward bend, better twists, better back bends, to put our legs behind our head or better arm balances. The list could go on and on and often we project our well being onto what we can do in our practice and we like to say: "Ah today I did such and such, what a great practice!" So yes there are good days and bad days and although our body and mind may change in our receptivity of it, what always remains the same is the state of Yoga. That cannot really improve because it is there all the time, but due to our ignorance we fail to see it! The question is therefore not how can we improve upon Yoga, but rather how can we improve the ignorant patterns that keep us away from it.
Excuse the cryptic language, but in the practice of 'yoga' many people are ready to almost sell their soul to the devil just to get the jump-throughs right, be better at any of the postures or simply be able show off something differently than what is going on. What happened to all the fine tuning? Who says your life will be better just because you can do a better hand stand? How long are we going to keep on fooling ourselves by thinking that everything will improve if we can only become 'better' in how we relate to this transient body/mind organism of ours? How do you know your ideal of 'perfection' would actually bring about a greater state of 'good' rather than just fooling yourself into more projections and desires?
Now you probably wonder why I'm bugging you with all of this. What if I just signed up for a yoga class in order to loose some weight or simply meet some juicy women that are different to all the dorks in my office. What's wrong with that? Nothing! But since we were talking about Mysoer Style and having observed the gung-ho approach somebody keep on soldering with their practice I just wanted to say: "Slow down a little, what's the rush? Who cares if you can do all of the postures like superman? But if there is a little introspection in the midst of what we do, we may actually begin to peel through some of the surface layers of our body/mind and some subtle rays of yoga may shine through.
It's all about the breath
When we learn to breath with what is, turn our attention inwards and take a good look at how our body mind is responding in each and every pose, the potential for transformation is far greater than just doing push ups or pushing ourselves to various extremes. That feels great afterwards, when we finally stop, but the beauty of yoga is that it can have a lasting impression on us over time when we are able to finally reconcile the many different patterns operating within our body/mind and come to experience that something different to it all is the source of the purity of seeing from within. That quiet observer that just consumes all our dramas and delights is always different to them all in its sheer capability of observation.
Now the practice of Yamas and Niyamas are the foremost tools to observe this process more clearly, but since we're on the third limb, asana, instead of projecting where/what we want to be it is more conducive to coming into contact with what is really going on by learning to breathe with it a little better. What I'm trying to say is that when you stop pushing so hard and rather relax a little into each pose and explore your interior a little more, something in the external body/mind organism will be freed up in the process and the patterns of strain/tension holding you in a grip will eventually cease. But here some caution may be given: doing postures that are too difficult for us will only reinforce our imbalances! If we are not able to keep our equilibrium in the midst of it all and if we're fuelled by desire and ambition there is no steady core to receive it all and hence our practice is busy projecting rather than seeking integration.
My point is not to be a quasi philosopher, but rather share the great experience that when we stop trying so hard to actually conquer the practice and rather allow the practice to do you, a space is freed up from within where you'll find 'improvement' on all levels. And the great bonus of that is that you'll actually get to experience a little more 'yoga' in the process.
In the Bhgagavad Gita there is a famous quote by Lord Krishna defining a man established in Samadhi=Yoga. After receiving the basic instructions in the principles of Sankhya, Buddhi and Karma Yoga, Arjuna feels the great complexity of the many directions his mind twists and turns. He therefore wonders if our understanding of yoga will ever reach beyond our personal ambition, expectations or general delusion. Will it ever become centered in something steady and unchanging from within rather than all of the endless pulls and fluctuations of our mind?
Here is the question Arjuna poses followed by the answer given by Lord Krishna:
"What is the definition, O Keshava (Krishna), of a man of steady wisdom, absorbed in Yoga? How does a man of steady wisdom talk, how does he sit and how does he walk?
Sri Bhagavan said:
When a man gives up all desires of the mind, O Partha, and delights purely in the essence of his Self, then he is a man of steady wisdom.
He who is untroubled in misery and free from desires in the midst of pleasures, who is devoid of all attachment, fear and anger - that sage is said to be of steady wisdom.
He who is free from affection everywhere, and whether he attains, good or evil neither welcomes nor hate hates them - his wisdom is steady.
And when he completely withdraws his senses from the sense-objects, even as a tortoise its limbs - then his wisdom is steady.
For a person of restraint sense objects fall off, but not the relish for them, but even this relish ceases, for the man of steady wisdom when the Supreme Being is realized.
The turbulent senses O son of Kunti, forcibly lead astray the mind of even the struggling wise person.
Therefore controlling all these senses, the self-controlled one should sit meditating on Me (God) He who's senses is under control - he is a man of steady wisdom".(BG 2:55-61)
How this translates into the physical practice of postures
Well for it to be an element of Yoga in the midst of them, there equally has to be an element of 'letting go'. A total acceptance of our transient nature rather than trying to hard to transfix it into an illusionary perfection, that is stale and decrepit! But the receptivity of spirit heals and awakens us to an inner perfection. Then we may finally realize that all of the postures are just like a good detergent that washes the dirt away from our body/mind so the inner luminosity of the self will shine through more brightly.
That is yoga which frees up our being, dissolves our many aches and pains and help us realize that our essence of being was never this fluctuating mind at all, but rather the one that perceives it.
R. Alexander Medin
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