The sun is only just beginning to warm up as I weave my way through the residential streets to my Shala, just ten minutes from my apartment.
I’m in Gokulam, a pretty upmarket area in the north-east of Mysore, India, where the majority of yoga schools are concentrated. The houses on these streets are large and gated, with the odd palm tree scattered in their front gardens.
It’s oddly quiet and civilised for India, with only a relatively infrequent rickshaw or motorbike horn honking at junctions to break the peace. Even the street dogs are chilled and well-behaved.
Yoga is serious business here. Which is no surprise when you consider Mysore’s history.
The city was home to Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga who ran a school here in the 1930s. Both Pattabhi Jois and B. K. S. Iyengar were students of his who went on to popularise their learnings, taking them to the West. And so, Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga were born.
For Ashtanga practitioners particularly, Mysore is Mecca.
In Gokulam, there’s a certain air about the place, something discernible that screams discipline, commitment and dedication. This materialises by some restaurants, often set up in people’s living rooms, only offering dinner between 5pm and 7pm. Sometimes kitchens close at 8pm – early nights are obviously a given. I’ve not seen a single whiff of alcohol in any shops or on any restaurant menu. Bottomless chai or offerings of organic green smoothies, however, are a plenty.
Locals provide refuelling lunch in their ‘front-room restaurants’ where yoga students sit on floor cushions eating ragi (finger millet) pancakes, tofu scramble or Thali sets.
And there’s a constant stream of yogis visiting the coconut man on the junction to rehydrate after practice.
It’s like nowhere I’ve ever been before.
The yoga vibe here feels truly authentic. It feels like I’m at the very source – which I am. This is simply Indian traditional Ashtanga yoga, Mysore-style.
To my daily routine. This morning I had an option of getting up at 6:30am to practice Surya Kriya (a type of Isha Hatha yoga) but I skipped it in favour of an additional hour in bed. I tell myself that the extra energy saved in that hour will pull me through this afternoon’s back bending class. More on that later.
So, it’s 7:45am in the quiet, leafy backstreets of Gokulam, my yoga mat is slung over my shoulder. Normally there is a refreshing chill in the air at this time of the morning and today is no exception. As I walk past the large houses, Indian squirrels (I have no idea what they’re really called) run across the roads, propelling themselves up the trees as I approach. A random backstreet cow chews its way contently through some discarded rubbish, and dogs wearing collars (this is upmarket Gokulam after all) roam around the junctions.
My 8am ‘slot’ means that I’m actually one of the luckier ones. Well I think so anyway. Hundreds of students are finishing or have already finished their Ashtanga asana practice by this time, having hauled themselves out of bed at 4 or 5am to reach their Shalas.
I’m on my way to Ashtanga Sadhana, run by Vijay Kumar who teaches traditional Ashtanga yoga, Mysore-style classes six days a week.
I graduated from my 200 hour yoga teacher training just one month before arriving here, and so I was pretty confident on my first day with Vijay. That confidence quickly dissipated as I rolled out my mat and stared at the Ashtanga sequence on the board at the back of the room.
My ego was obliterated by Uttitha Trikonasana (triangle pose) as I struggle to remember the sequence, and am told my stance is too wide.
And rightly so.
This is a widely-respected sequence.
The Ashtanga series’, primary, intermediate and advanced, follow the same sequence of asana postures each time they’re practiced. And they get progressively more challenging. Your teacher will move you along the sequence by ‘giving’ you a new posture only when they believe you’re ready.
Although I’m a newbie, I’m already feeling an honour toward this practice.
As I arrive at the Shala and climb the stairs to the top floor, the familiar feeling of hot air hits me as I reach the top step. No fans, just hot bodies and a surround sound of Ujjayi breath from everyone in precarious positions on their mats.
I love arriving here each morning. Ashtanga yoga is gruelling and utterly amazing.
For the next hour and a half I’m focussed only on me, my breath and my body.
For me, the morning’s practice is like a moving meditation and although I pour with sweat and each part of my body screams me, I love it.
Each session I attend I achieve a little more. I master a new asana, I manage to jump through my arms and land successfully on my bottom, I remember a series of postures. Whatever it is, however big or small, there is something every time.
When I finally land in Savasana, I can relax and feel like I’ve given my everything. And, I’ve not even had breakfast yet.
Class finishes and I wrap myself in a jumper and scarf to keep warm after the sweat has dried, and make my way to one of three places. Depending on what my stomach says, I either bee-line to ‘The Masala Dosa Man’, ‘The Coconut Man’ or ‘The Idli Man’. All three men provide wonderful rewards after a tough practice.
Twice a week, Vijay offers a philosophy class where he discusses the Yoga Sutras, brilliantly delivered, I’d like to add. It’s a very enjoyable session. Following philosophy classes, some of the group go for brunch at one of the local ‘front room’ cafes.
Today is one of those days.
The balance of food intake is quite an interesting one to master each day and took a good week to figure out. I have discovered that I need to take in sufficient food to give me enough energy to make it through the afternoon back bending class, but also not too much so that I spew it all up onto my yoga mat.
I burped my way through my first three back bending sessions, and felt like I was about to throw up for the first two, but I think I’m getting there now.
My ‘free time’ is usually spent at my apartment either in bed relaxing, washing my yoga clothes, writing or reading. It goes too quickly and all too soon it’s time to walk back past the Indian squirrels, cows and dogs to the yoga Shala.
3pm summons me to a back bending and flexibility class with Vinay Kumar, Vijay’s older brother. In between all-too-frequent burps, I question whether it was an utterly ridiculous idea to sign up to this, on top of the Ashtanga-filled mornings. I look at the clock every ten minutes or so and feel progressively happier the closer it gets to the end. It is a complete opposite feeling to my morning practice.
The decision to see this out for the full month is still pending.
After an hour and a half of trying to get the soles of my feet to touch my head, I drag myself back past the Indian squirrels, cows and dogs to the apartment for one final yoga session of the day – Surya Kriya at sunset.
Yikes! If there was such a thing as a competition on how much yoga you can squeeze into one day, I’d stand a chance of winning.
I’m super hungry and just want to eat dinner in bed. But I push through, it seems Gokulam is getting to my bones.
With asana practice finished for the day, dinner time approaches.
Curry for dinner is my favourite time of day and I look forward to sitting down in a restaurant and ordering lots of curry and roti.
Before my eyes have even glanced at a yoga mat.
My excitement builds as the yoga asana practices get ticked off one by one until, at last, I am scooping dhal with a big portion of roti.
Amazingly, I get to do this all over again tomorrow.
I love Mysore.