Yesterday, the Mysore room at our studio was only half full, and it seemed like it might be one of those sleepy mornings that are more tiring than when it’s packed. But it turned out to be an extraordinary practice.
Often we don’t have that much information about our students, though we grow to know them deeply in silent ways. Today, however, I knew quite a lot about who was practicing, the stories behind their bodies and the motives behind their tears—which happened to be in great supply.
There was someone struggling with depression, someone who had lost her best friend too early to cancer and then torn her labrum—which for lay people is a terrifically painful injury to the hip; someone else who was on her third major loss (cancer again); and a student arrived with an x-ray of a herniated disc. She entered the room with the fear only a diagnosis can inspire.
Skilled teachers always remind teachers-in-training to remember the mystery inherent in their students. We rarely grasp what is going on at home or at work, and it’s so important to give people space and respect as they practice, to remember how much we don’t know. In the same way, most practitioners don’t anticipate how revealing a yoga practice can be and how vulnerable we can become. Tears are common currency in Mysore practice and understood as part of the process. Unless someone is disturbing other practitioners with wild howling, the conventional wisdom is to let people be—albeit from a compassionate reserve. This is the basic tenet of any mindfulness practice: watch something come to the surface, give it room, watch it subside. The space in which this process occurs is called love.
As a teacher, it’s hard to watch people suffer. It’s not unlike parenting. I’ll never forget when my three year-old son emerged from pre-school with a tight face and said, “Bruno doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.” As a parent, you can’t beat up someone else’s three year-old, and as a yoga teacher you can’t fix a student’s failing marriage. But we can hug our children and remind our students to breathe.
Thank God for this practice: that we can put a silent hand on a shaking back or remind practitioners to open their chests as they bend forward or to feel their heels against the ground as they raise their arms. These simple actions, within the magic of asana, ground and relieve and lift what can seem like unbearable states of body and mind. These are small mercies, but they can grow into big change.
Yesterday morning everyone was doing a significantly modified practice, either because of their physical ailments (the hip, the lumbar spine, the poorly-healed c-section) or their emotional state (opening up the chest to let in a little light after all that grief). It was not Ashtanga Yoga As It Is (whatever that looks like), but Ashtanga Yoga As We Really Are. I was reminded of the personally tailored therapeutic approach that Krishnamacharya developed and the consistent evidence that Pattabhi Jois gave different sequences of postures to different students, depending on their personal challenges, both physical and mental. Today in our studio, that spirit was alive and vibrant, helping people bear their pain with silent grace. A friend told me recently that Sharath Jois has shifted the focus in his teaching and is now “all about charity and therapy.” This is the heart of our practice, or as Patanjali says: maitri karuna muditopekshanam, sukkha dukkha punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatas citta prasadanam; by cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind retains its undisturbed calmness. In other words, through kindness to others, we find peace ourselves.
It can seem like a crazy thing to do this practice, showing up, against the odds of work and children, time and exhaustion. Not only do we come every day (almost) to our mats to do something hard and sometimes painful (not necessarily physically), but we expose our softest parts to near strangers. We put our wellbeing in the teachers’ hands. We trust when we are tempted to roll up in a ball and turn out the light.
I felt so honored to be amongst that ragged crew today in what Yeats famously called the “rag and bone shop of the heart.” That is as good a definition of a Mysore class as I have ever found. Today it was humbling to stand amongst these dedicated practitioners, watching them raise their arms in a beautifully slow arc or dropping their knees to the floor in chaturanga or modifying a pose to a nearly unrecognizable form until all that remained was their breath and their intention. I couldn’t help but think of the St. Crispin’s Day speech that Henry V gives in Shakespeare’s play to the soldiers who are outnumbered six to one and facing imminent death.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.”
Paradoxically, within the yoga tradition, we are familiar with the metaphor of war. The Bhagavad Gita takes place on a battlefield, but through our practice we understand that this epic refers to the war within. The blood that we shed in the Mysore room is the sweat of ourtapas; we blow on the conch shell of our own breath; we stand up for what we believe in our daily lives and learn to take action, and when our mouths are parched and our hair stands on end, we kneel before our teachers and ask for guidance. Every day, this practice gentles our condition.
The camaraderie that King Henry seeks to foster in his soldiers is strong in a Mysore room. We may not know that much about the people beside us, but we sing with them, we lie down alongside them and we serve up our hearts daily in their midst. We are inexplicably moved to belong to this ragged band of brothers and sisters, we few, we Mysore few, knowing that many are still a-bed while we stand together in Samasthiti.