Yoga's Belly Button

My friend Claudia has been in Mysore almost since I last saw her in Cambodia and she kindly helped me to get an apartment/hotel. As I was leaving the five-star, recovery hotel I got a text from her saying, you may see Satya when you check in. Satya is my Chilean firecracker of a yoga teacher and while I knew she’d be in India while I was here I had no idea that not only would I get to see her, but that in fact she would be the first person I laid eyes on in Gokolam. Not that I needed further affirmation, but seeing her was a sure sign that this is the right place for me.

Back at yoga teacher training was the first time I really became aware of the roots of Ashtanga yoga. I learned about Sri Krisnamacharya who was the teacher of Pattabhi Jois, who is the teacher of my teacher Satya and who founded the Ashtanga Research Center here in Mysore. Pattabhi Jois, or Guruji as he is affectionately known by his students, is 94 now and sadly he is not well. His yoga shala is currently run by his daughter Saraswathi and grandson Sharath. This is where I have come to practice for the next month.

Gokolam, where the yoga shala is and where I am staying seems to me to be a sort of suburb of Mysore. It is a very upscale town by the Indian standards I have seen thus far. Everything is within walking distance of my hotel and while built on a grid system it is not… I was able to figure out how to navigate the roads and to find some key landmarks, namely Anu’s place and the coconut shack.

Anu’s is a restaurant, Internet café, guesthouse and all around yogi center. Ganesh who runs the place is a go-to guy for all the questions confused visiting yogis could come up with. Where can I stay? Where can I rent a motorbike? How can I call home? And so on.

While walking around the town I had noticed this unimpressive little shack in the middle of the main street that was always packed with yogis drinking from coconuts. During my lunch at Anu’s the gentleman at the table with me mentioned the coconut shack and I said that I had seen it. He informed me that the shack was the center of the yogic world – that it was effectively “yoga’s navel”. I haven’t quite worked up the courage to drink coconut juice from the belly button of yoga, but I am sure I will before I leave.
Later I met up with Satya, her Dutch friends Danielle and Nina, and Claudia and her friend Jonika, all six of us went out for a dinner of dosas and fresh watermelon juice. I felt so amazing in the company of all of these wonderful women, all of us here to practice, all of us smiling with our wide eyes and open hearts. After dinner we quietly made our way back to the hotel and each settled in for the night.

Still fighting the time difference, I woke up every two hours and finally threw in the towel at 4am. After a couple hours of flitting about, I made my way to the roof and began my morning practice. When practicing at the shala the weeks run from Monday through Saturday, so your week, month, whatever begins on a Monday. For me this means one day of on-my-own practice before the big show.

One by one Satya, Danielle and Nina joined me on the roof until we were each at our own place within the Ashtanga Primary Series and each within our own breath. It was a beautiful practice for me, during a vinyasa I looked up to see a hawk landing on the roof about 15’ feet from us. I stared at him, he stared at us in our strange positions, it was a really special moment.
After my practice I was eager to explore the town more so I set out on foot once again. I walked along quiet residential streets photographing doors and windows and the chalk-drawn prayers in front of each house. I took note of all the very healthy-looking cows wandering haphazardly through the streets. And finally I found the coffee café. I know I am supposed to learn to love Chai while I am here, but I will have to slowly ween myself off of my Italy-developed cappuccino habit.

Satya pulled up as I was out front of the café and the two of us enjoyed a drink and conversation. Generally I think I am a good conversationalist. I can speak to varying degrees on most topics moving conversations along or slowing the pace when appropriate and truly I enjoy hearing other people’s stories. But when any of my teachers talk, I am greedy with their words. I don’t want to add to the conversation I just want to drink in their experiences and perceptions. So my cup remained full as I sated my thirst with Satya’s words and simply enjoyed being in her presence.
I walked back to the hotel afterwards, the whole time my eyes wide and my grin inviting. People here are so fascinatingly open. Something about their smiles and the abundance of eye contact that makes me want to actually talk to everyone. In Thailand I found myself looking down, wearing my headphones and generally avoiding having to talk. Here I want to engage everyone, hear all their stories, stare into their eyes and be blinded by their toothy smiles.

At 4pm I went to register for the month. Sharath signed me in and gave me the card signifying my right to practice in the main shala with him. If you come for less than one month you practice later in the day with Saraswathi. I set my watch to shala time, fifteen minutes faster than real time, and grabbed a seat by Claudia and Jonika for the afternoon’s lecture.

Sharath began speaking about energy channels and how asana (physical yoga) and pranayama (breath) are the paths to cleaning your nervous system. After about ten minutes he ended the class abruptly and informed us that he had to leave because Guruji had taken ill and had to go to the hospital. Everyone in the room felt the weight of those words. Outside the shala we caught a rare glimpse of Guruji as his car drove away.

In the evening we went to see the palace which is lit up by thousands of standard light bulbs on Sunday nights. Since we had arrived earlier than expected we took a quick side trip and ended up at Sri Patanjala’s Yoga Shala where Sri Krisnamacharya taught, where Guruji studied, where Ashtanga and by lineage Vinyasa began. It was such a powerful place to visit and to get to be there with one of my teachers was beyond anything I could have ever hoped for.

A few minutes later we were standing in front of the shining Maharaja’s Palace and I was completely overcome with joy and wonderment. How did a girl from Cincinnati, Ohio end up at the yogic center of the world at this moment, with these women?

I felt like my body and mind were inadequately equipped to take it all in, like my eyes could not widen enough, my mind could not comprehend and like my heart was having to work overtime to compensate for the failings of my senses.

I am humbled, I am inspired and I cannot wait for my first practice tomorrow morning.

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