Saturday, March 20, 2010
This brief blog hiatus was brought to you by Indian stomach flu/food poisoning/ick.
Another week has passed in Mysore and I (E) haven’t seen the inside of the shala since leaving with chills halfway through student conference. Digestive problems—what we might call “stomach flu” in the states, though in this case it’s definitely bacterial and not viral—is a risk and on our last trip we both fell ill after eating some fruit from a street vendor. This time was better, as only I got sick, but it was also worse, because I was really sick. Anyway, to shorten a long story, after some antibiotics and rehydration at the Gokulum hospital I’ve gradually improved all week (with wonderful caretaking!) and think I’m up to returning to the shala for 430a led class on Sunday.
Word is that the numbers are quickly dwindling. Sharath’s last teaching day of April 9th is fast approaching (though he has since announced that he will resume teaching in mid-August of this year) and many students are finishing up and leaving. This means that most students with any level of experience are getting in to practice by 630a or so. It also means there is a terrific logjam of students from about 530a on. Sharath’s policy seems to be “You wait so I don’t have to;” as long as he can say “One more!” and have a student quickly appear out of the waiting room, he doesn’t much care about shortening your wait time, so he has moved a huge number up students up to 530a. It is just as it used to be at the old shala with Guruji in Lakshmipuram. There it was the legendary wait on the stairs outside, with some students cutting in line and vying for position, or simply being called in out of turn by Guruji. Just like at that time, in the end everyone gets to practice and is almost certainly humbled by it.
Speaking of which, we were very excited to see the arrival two weeks ago of Alex, a very advanced student we first saw two years ago. At that time we saw him practicing at least part of the fourth series (Advanced B), which makes him the most advanced student we have seen. I, for one, distinctly remember seeing Vrschikasana (forearm balance with feet on the head). That was two years ago, so we are waiting to see what he does this time.
For advanced students (those proficient in two, three, or more series’), it seems standard to build into capacity: each student does Primary for the first week, Intermediate the second, Advanced A the third, etc until reaching his/her threshold, depending on how many times they’ve been. Alex has been doing Advanced A this week (seemingly his third week). It’s not clear whether such students follow the daily schedule here (Intermediate on Sunday, Advanced A on Mondays, etc) or if they do what other students do: their most advanced, “leading edge” practice every day, periodically receiving new postures. For us, it can be hard to do your own practice while constantly gawking at another student—especially if you are across the room from one another, for example—but we’re getting good at it.
Like anyone proficient in a skill, advanced students have a “style.” Alex does’t have the same powerful, gymnastic presence of some other advanced students, but is light, poised, and, seemingly, completely unaffected by the difficulty of the postures. He is also great fun at student conference, and often spends nearly as much time talking as Sharath. There is a great and obviously long-standing relationship between the two, and they often tell stories about one another. For example, Sharath said that at one point Alex said to Sharath “I want to see your asana practice.” Sharath said that that was impossible, because he practices at 230a, but Alex insisted. (You’ve got to love anybody with the stones to do that.) So one morning Alex came over and watched Sharath’s practice. “Such advanced postures,” Sharath said, “that just seeing them, he became enlightened.”
We celebrated the Hindu New Year on March 16 by having some kind of sweet flatbread with our landlord and family. It’s great fun to experience a set of holidays “from the outside” and take in the traditions in complete novelty. Also a wonderful random moment in the marketplace: as we were buying some fruit, a sadhu (a wandering holy man) shuffled over. He looked the part: white hair and beard, walking stick, barefoot, naked to the waist. He was hunched and little palsied with age, with a face absolutely lit up with a beatific smile.
This is a tradition we obviously cherish, so we are cautious not to be taken in by the many charlatans in orange robes, but we both had the sense that this guy was the real deal. He seemed somehow totally apart from the craze of the market and everyone in it. He shuffled over, used a long thumbnail to pinch red tikka powder from a bag, smeared bindus (forehead dots) on us, and then rested his hand on top of each of our heads for a moment (he was so small and hunched we bent down for this). Beautiful.
Finally, one more funny story, completely unrelated. Our friend David (who has since gone back to Toronto) told us about the last years of Guruji teaching. Guruji officially retired in 2007 though for some time before that Sharath was shouldering most of the load (there are stories of Guruji doing things like dozing in his chair during Mysore practice days). David said that he was in some of these Mysore classes in “the later years” and it was not uncommon to be in, say, a standing posture like Utthita Parsvakonasana and feel Guruji’s old-but-strong hand on your shoulder, side, or head. Expecting an adjustment, you would be at first surprised to see Guruji moving on to the next student—only to realize that Guruji was not giving adjustments, but instead using the students as support to cross the room. Getting a handhold wherever he could—shoulder, side, head, arm, or whatever—he would lean on one and then grab the next, like a horizontal rock climber. No disrespect here—the man was in his 90’s—but that makes for a funny visual, Guruji walking/leaning/swaying through the room, his touch at first bringing excitement, then confusion, and then possibly annoyance from each student as he bounced from one to the next.
Guruji is no longer around to wreak such havoc in the practice space, but Sharath’s youngest (two-ish) does his best, tearing into the room at any given time, echoing his dad’s count at the top of his lungs during led class, or banging his plastic cricket bat against any given thing in the otherwise quiet room. It’s hard to keep a straight face when you are in, say, setu bandhasana, reclined with the head back, shaking with effort and you suddenly see tiny, sneakered feet creeping by with all the care and caution a two-year-old can manage.