"She doesn’t know my life, but she sees me and she sees my practice."
I wake up a few minutes before the alarm, as is usual for me. I press the light on the clock to see the time. It is dark inside and outside. 4:20 am. Ten more minutes in bed. Should I stay in bed or get up now? I wait a few minutes. Then flip the light on and get up. I press the button on the electric kettle, having filled it last night with water from the filtered water jug that sits in the corner of my room. The tea bag is already in the cup. No need to decide anything this morning. I lie down again as I wait for the water to boil. When the kettle clicks off, I get up to pour the water. As my tea brews, I get dressed in the clothes I washed by hand yesterday and then hung out to dry in the Mysorean sun during the day. Last night I brought them in and folded the ones to be worn later in the week. Only a few outfits to choose from. Much easier that way.
After drinking the tea and washing up, I grab my mat, make sure I have my shala card, and head out. I find my flip flops in the dark outside my door and then climb over the metal gate that guards the entrance to the driveway. I can smell the jasmine from the tiny flowers that cascade over the top of the gate. I find it easier to climb over the fence than fumble in the dark for the key to the lock.
I drop to the ground and head to the shala. Occasionally I see others on their way as well. This summer only Saraswathi is teaching, so there are fewer Westerners. Sometimes I see no one until I am outside the shala. No one but the street dogs that lie curled under trees, occasionally lifting their heads as I walk by to see if I have brought them treats. I kick my sandals off onto the steps and walk into the main shala. Again, I am lucky in that there are no lines. I can simply walk in and lay down my mat. I then cross over to the locker room to take off my kurta and leave my mat bag on one of the shelves. I am truly not worried anyone will steal anything.
I go back to my mat and look at the clock. I find I have been slightly confused about the time of practice. Saraswathi’s assistant had written 6am on my card. The shala clock is 10-15 minutes fast. So that comes to 5:45am on the clock in my room. But Saraswathi leads the chant about 5:40 on the shala clock. Somehow, my jet lagged and sleepy mind can’t figure out what time that really is. I just know I get up, leave my room by 5:10 by my clock and start practicing by 5:35 on the shala clock. I do a few surya namaskara A and I see Saraswathiji in the office at the back of the studio, chatting with one of her assistants. Then she is at the front of the room and we all stand in Samasthiti.
“Om, Vande gurunam, charanaravinde…”
India is a charmed place. It is hard to describe in words. When I returned to the States, back at work, people ask me how was India??? What can I say? I can say it is hard to describe. The sacred and the secular exist side by side and the sacred is so palpable. Is it my imagination, my wanting to believe that India is a sacred place that makes it seem so? I don’t know. Earlier in my life I traveled through Europe and visited many cathedrals yet did not feel the spirituality that is India. But I was in a different place in my life back then.
I had been told by people who have practiced with Saraswathi that Saraswathi has a knack of knowing what is right for each practitioner. What is right for their practice and right for their lives. She doesn’t know my life, but she sees me and she sees my practice. I chat with an Indian woman from Chennai. She has been coming to Mysore to practice with Saraswathi for a few years. She does half of primary series. She is a mother and her in-laws were in a major accident and need much care that had fallen into her lap. She has found her half-primary practice to be life-changing for her.
For me, I had found my Ashtanga practice in Boston to be life changing. Hard to describe how. I am happier. Though always calm on the outside, calmer on the inside. Did I need to go to India to practice? Was I going through a mid-life crisis of sorts? What was I doing in India??
I have a friend from my work who is originally from Mysore. His brother still lives in Mysore. This friend was also visiting his homeland the first week I was there, so the two brothers showed me around. They accept that coming to Mysore to do yoga is normal. The brother has lived in Mysore his whole life. He has seen all the Westerners come to do yoga. My friend moved to the States in his 20s. He was a physician in India but did not gain the credentials to practice in the US. When he was a teenager, he lived near Pattabhi Jois’ old studio in Lakshmipuram. He thinks back wistfully of seeing the yoga students near his home and how he could have done yoga instead of studying all the time. He didn’t start to do yoga until after he had a heart attack in his 50s. Now he practices every day. He does regular puja and studies the Vedas. He did not see the value of this as a young man.
The first week with Saraswathi, I practiced primary series. Primary series is grounding. Good to center oneself after much travel. I know with her son Sharath, people often practice primary for at least a month. He keeps them there. Yet at the end of the first week, Saraswathi asks if I do second. I say I do. She asks how much. I say, “All of it.” She looks surprised, but says, “You do next week.”
I am happy I will get to do second series. I like the series--the heart opening backbending, but I am not very strong, and I have trouble with the strength postures like pincha mayurasana. However, I don’t worry so much as I think I will only start second series. The first part is not so bad.
On Monday, I do primary and wait. Will Saraswathi tell me to do pashasana (the first posture of second) and then stop? Sharmila, who is assisting, asks if I need help binding. I explain that Saraswathi told me to second today and I am not sure what I should do. Saraswathi sees me at that point and says, “You do!” So, I start. I keep going. I wonder if she will stop me. In supta vajrasana, where an assistant sits on your crossed legs as you go back, I ask the assistant if I should keep going. She smiles and says yes. Saraswathi will stop you if she wants.
So, I keep going. I do the dreaded pincha mayurasana and karandavasana. I can’t do karandavasana alone, but an assistant helps me. I try mayurasana and don’t balance for five breaths, but Saraswathi doesn’t stop me. Nakrasana—I try. I keep going. Seven headstands. After doing all of primary and all of second, I am tired. The last headstand takes me a few attempts. Then backbending. Saraswathi comes over. She asks me what I did. “All of primary and all of second,” I answer. She smiles broadly. “You do half primary and second every day. Come to led second series.” I backbend and finish.
I am in a panic. Am I strong enough to do half primary and all of second every day and then finish the week with led second? I think in my head this is not possible. It will kill me. I can’t do it.
The week goes on. I do my practice. After practice, I go back to my room and eat breakfast. Usually sweet potatoes that I boil on a hot plate. Ayurveda teaches us the heavy, moist root vegetables are good for stabilizing the nervous, dry vata energy of travel. My room is small. I lie on my bed for an hour, listening to a meditation app and falling in and out of sleep.
And I do it. It is OK. I feel strong. I get more solid in the strength postures. I still fear she will actually watch me in mayurasana and see I can’t do it and stop me. But she doesn’t stop me.
The last day I am in India I have lunch with some friends I made on the trip, including a young woman I have seen but not talked to. After a bit, she turns to me and demands, “How come you got to do second series?” I am surprised. I hadn’t really noticed what other people were doing in the room. Yes, I saw the people on either side of me and there was the strong Argentinian woman who did third series and she was hard to miss, but I didn’t know what this young woman had been doing all month.
She told me. “I practice to Karandavasana in Bali, where I assist my teachers,” she said. “Yet Saraswathi didn’t let me go past primary.” She looks somewhat scornfully at my 50-something-year-old body. “She prefers mature practitioners! Only today did she ask if I do second series. When I said ‘yes,’ she said ‘Monday, do pashasana.’ Monday I will be back in Bali!!”
The woman looked thoughtful. “Maybe this is what I needed,” she said.