When I was asked to write a blog piece on my experience of Yoga and Travel it felt almost insurmountable. How could, arguably two of the most significant, soul changing, and poignant things in my life, two things that are so intertwined for me, be written about in one blog post? A novel, maybe. A blog, impossible! How would I get it all in?!
Thankfully, to save you countless stories and tales of travel and yoga, yoga while traveling, and traveling while doing yoga… you get my drift, I decided to focus on one very important trip for me; my first trip to Mysore and the one where I found my teacher.
It was April 2009 and I’d already lived on and off for a just over a year in the Sivananda Ashram, in Kerala. I’d completed my teacher training, ended a long term relationship, traveled around India in a group and alone, shadowed senior teachers, assisted on a kids camp, assisted 2 further trainings, started a new relationship and taught in South Goa. I’d also lost both my Grandfather and my Grandmother, whom I was incredibly close to. Needless to say, I’d learnt a lot, suffered a lot, laughed a lot, and cried a lot.
Like most good stories, going to Mysore, finding my teacher, and making the switch to practice Ashtanga Yoga, was one of complete chance. I’d met a guy from Delhi in the ashram who gave me a card for a shala in Mysore saying ‘If you ever get a chance to go, this teacher is amazing’. About two months later a British couple passed through the ashram, and one night told me they were about to continue their journey onwards to Mysore to study with their teacher there. They gave me his card. It was the same one as the one I’d already been given.
A great believer in the old adage, ‘everything happens for a reason’, and being a naturally curious person, who at that time was fortunate enough to have no set plans on where to live or what to do, I left the ashram, traveled around a bit, all the while using these business cards as book marks, and eventually booked a flight to Bangalore and a train to Mysore.
Arriving at the station, as anyone who's ever taken a train in India can tell you, can be a daunting experience. Luckily though, at that point I was pretty used to negotiating my way around and hopped in a rickshaw handing the driver a tattered card.
“Ahhhh this yoga shala, yes yes, Laxmipuram, Sthalam8, Ajay Kumar, I know.”
Followed by, “First time Mysore? You Ashtanga? Oh, Hatha? Very good chanting, but Ashtanga very good body, ha ha ha ha.”
Reaching the steps of Ajay’s shala 10 mins later, I was struck by the simplicity of the place. Later I would learn that an old Indian Brahmin family lived downstairs, and Ajay rented the first floor off them.
Up there I found, a small practice room (worlds away from the massive Sivananda Shiva hall at Neyyar Dam), a semi outdoor chill area, a small kitchen/ cafe, and a puja area. The receptionist, called Ajay to inform him a student (me) had come. I waited. About 30 mins later, Ajay came in and sat down at the desk.
“How did you hear about me?”, it wasn’t quite threatening, but it wasn’t soft either, definitely a change to the Swamis at Sivananda who spoke in muted tones.
“Nilesh, and Ellie and her boyfriend both gave me your cards.”
A look of warmth crossed his face, “Ah good! And where are you coming from? Sivananda?”
“Yes”, I said almost inaudibly, I had no idea if this would be a good or a bad thing! I’ve come to learn over the years that there can be a lot of prejudice when it come to different Yoga schools and philosophies. Gratefully, I knew very little of that back then, and even so it pleased Ajay to hear I’d been in an Ashram.
“Great, so you are used to waking up early then!?”
“Well actually I was hoping…”
“ See you tomorrow at 6am.”
And so, that day I was taken around by one of Ajay’s friends, Lekan, to find an apartment. I got a two bedroom place living above a family, with Lekan warning me that it only had an Indian toilet. I informed him that I’d been living in an ashram having a cold bucket shower for months, and having my own toilet at this point was a luxury! Turns out, Ellie and her Boyfriend had rented the exact same apartment and had just left two days before. There’s that synchronicity again.
My first practice was probably the hardest class I’d ever attended. It was Mysore style. I didn’t know the sequence. It seemed everyone around me knew what they were doing. I’d never breathed Ujayi. I couldn’t lower down in Chaturanaga Dandasana. I kept looking at the paper. I sweated bucket loads. I got told shortly I should’ve brought a towel. I had to repeat. All in all, I’m not sure what made me go back the next day. Except there was something indescribable in that room. Only those who practice Mysore style can relate to that. There’s the most powerful, overwhelming, all encompassing energy, and yet it’s completely silent. Apart from the odd command from Ajay to a student or his assistant, there is no noise. None. Just breathing. It was magic.
A few days later was the weekly backbending class. I felt excitement and relief that finally I was going to be able to do something. Having always been flexible, I was sure this class would be a breeze!
At the end of class Ajay called me over.
“ You think you’re pretty flexible in your back right?”
“ Yes?”, I responded, unconvinced if that was the answer he was looking for.
He smiled, “Your spine is good, but your legs are very weak. We’ll work on that while you are here, otherwise if you keep using your back like that, by 35 you’ll be walking with a stick.”
Sobering words from a teacher who’d only seen me practice for about 3-4 days, and yet, I knew I’d found my teacher. He told me in that one statement more about my practice and myself than I’d ever got from anyone else. Often I received praise about my flexibility or my dancers style grace in movement. Never criticism. Nothing that showed up my Ego. The more I thought about it the more I realised this person was here to show me who I am and I’d be a fool to let my pride get in the way of that.
It was, and still remains today his discipline, his unwavering dedication to his teaching, his students, his shala, his insightful observation and knowledge of the human body, and even more so the mind, and what he seeks to cultivate in those who come to study with him, repeating almost daily; ‘I am not here to tell you what you are good at. I am here to tell you what you are bad at and then work with you to change it’ , that has drawn me back over the last 8 years. I can count the number of times he’s praised me with a ‘good laura’ on one hand.
Those 6 weeks in Mysore were spent finding muscles in my body I didn’t even know existed. I attended Ajay’s wife’s sister’s wedding. I went to Ajay’s birthday party. I made fruit salads with the one knife, plate and bowl I’d bought. I watched every episode of Heros having rented a TV and DVD player. I went into Gokulum (where the main Jois school is) once, to see a friend from Sivananda, who was staying at Anokhi (now one of my most favourite breakfast places). I went up Chamundhi Hill, and saw the palace lights. I also learnt of the death of Pattabhi Jois, who he was to the community, and attended his funeral procession.
But mainly what I found, mainly after all that I’d been through, I found not only the man who I still to this day call my teacher. I also found my strength. It is this that has kept me going at times of great despair and feelings of loss. It is this that now gets me on my mat alone each morning. It is this who shapes who I am on and off my Yoga mat.
Much is said about ‘walking the yoga path’, that our practice in itself is a journey. A movement away from one thing and towards something else. Much like travel, we delve deep into tangible experience, coming out the other side, each time a little bit different than we were before. The Yoga helps us recognise the change, and like travel, it strives to keep our minds, and our hearts open to possibility. After each hurdle that we face in our practice, a lesson is learnt, and again we continue walking. So too with travel, after each trip, our heart and body crave another experience, another transformation. I count myself lucky enough to have found travel, and my practice, both of which steer me through the world and allow me to see it a new.