Wednesday, April 7, 2010
The end is nigh
“Tomorrow you come. 430. BOAT!” (Tomorrow you should both come at 430.)
The last week of shala practice stretches before us…Time seems to accelerate here as numbers dwindle and thoughts turn to home. It is strange how the process of ending our study here (decreasing classes sizes, farewells to friends, packing up, etc) interacts with feelings about studying here. We feel ready to return home, but that is due in large part to the fact that the “season” is ending. We are staying until the end of the party, and it’s nearly done. Yet, it also feels that, under different circumstances (e.g. Sharath were not taking a break) we could easily stay for another four months (six months is the maximum for any one trip). In many respects, this ending of the yoga “season” is the exception: Guruji taught virtually unceasingly for nearly 60 years. Usually, students stay for as long as they can and when they leave the shala is still running at capacity, and continues to do so while they resume their home lives and think about the next trip.
There is that twinge of sadness when anything so anticipated and enjoyed ends, but there is no alternative: there is something about the culture of the shala and, in particular, the bearing of Sharath, that states clearly that this is not about staying indefinitely. He is not supportive of the yoga bum lifestyle. He does not want students shirking responsibilities or foregoing a “normal” life to simply live here. What he wants to see is a stability in and integration of the practice both here and in a daily home life, whatever that may be. We have heard from other senior ashtangis that one of Guruji’s main qualifications (perhaps the only one) for granting teaching authorization was the witnessing of a transformation in the person by practicing at the shala and, especially, NOT at the shala. Sharath also hinted at this when he mentioned “seventh and eight series’: marriage and children.”
The final student conference ended with an appropriate topic: guru and sadhaka (student). In his usual oblique way, Sharath did not directly say that he chose this topic because all of his students will soon be leaving, but the connection was clear. Surprise, surprise, dear reader, but Sharath has NOT tried other forms of yoga, nor does he have any interest in doing so. He feels what he has been taught is working for him. He also feels that his students, if they feel what he is teaching them is working, should stick with this method, returning to study with him and/or other senior ashtanga teachers. We couldn’t agree more. The difficulty is determining what is meant by “working” and distinguishing between the inherent discomforts of the system and true pangs of change when it is time to look elsewhere. Unfortunately, it is ultimately, entirely, up to you.
Before long the serious tone of conference was gone and it was again time for Sharath to bust a move (or two). This time it was Sirsasana B: the “lift-up” headstand, plus some other variations. Hard to say why Sharath is so eager to demonstrate these days: perhaps because he is more proficient in asana than English, or perhaps because he knows what we all want to see. All we know is people get damn excited when he takes off his shirt and ties up his lunghi!
It was also a great final registration with Sharath (we had to pay for our last two days). Steeled for a desperate attempt at an actual conversation, we found him to be open and willing, if not eager, to talk. We shared out “situation” (no authorized teacher for 200 miles in any direction), asked about his break (going to Africa to take some wildlife pics), and ended up looking at quite a few of his pictures. The man loves big cats. The pictures were really pretty impressive: of lions and wildebeests, tigers and elephants. He also showed us some of the “over 300” asana pictures he has had taken of himself at the old shala in Lakshmipuram. His mock secrecy about these pictures (“for a ‘project’”) quickly dissolved and we ended up with quite a scoop. Read on…
After nearly three weeks with barely a glance, K has been given five postures in nearly as many days. Today she practiced up through Kapotasana. Sharath then asked how it went for her and, basically, if she cheated in Laghu Vajrasana (the posture before Kapotasana) or not. She claimed innocence; however, tomorrow it will be down to the nitty-gritty: “You show me.” Being moved this far into Intermediate Series (Kapotasana) was the “best case” scenario before the trip, so it’s satisfying. However, it’s a hell of an intimidating posture, especially learning to dropback straight into it, as is the practice here: lean back and catch the heels before putting the elbows (or hands, for that matter) down.
I (E) have receive no postures, but plenty of $hit from Sharath: “This NOT ashtanga yoga” (remarking on my ardha baddha padmottansana modification); “Wery bad garbha pindasana” (repeated three or four times until I realized he was talking to me); etc. I think he was maybe expecting that I wouldn’t still be modifying… There is no doubt that I am the only student doing any modifications who has also been granted any (two) Intermediate postures. His comments are not the cuddly, supportive atmosphere we might expect in the West, but some how—the sadomasochistic tendencies of ashtangis—it is part of the allure. His comments are pretty half-hearted and really, if he’s not giving more postures, what else is there to say? Don’t worry Sharath: I ain’t mad at ‘cha.
As Sharath gets ready for his break from teaching, we are looking forward to our return to it. It is very difficult to say why coming here helps teaching: we haven’t learned any new postures or adjustments or applications, or anything like that at all. To some extent the immersion back into being a student renews the import of the teaching role. In other ways the shala itself is inspiring: there is a depth and solemnity amidst the superficial, frantic energy of the practice space on any given day. Finally, strangest of all, there is Saraswathi. As a teacher, she’s just so damn HAPPY all the time, bopping around the shala, backbending students, humming to herself all the while. When you come up out of the deepest backbend of your life and see her smiling face, you can’t help but grin stupidly, feeling the scream die in your throat.
We are saying goodbye to our friends Vanessa and Vikram. Last week the silence of the shala was broken during Vikram’s backbending with Sharath. It started off with the usual exchange when a student is just learning to grab his/her own heels/ankles.
S: “Walk your hands.” (In toward the feet in Urdhva Dhanurasana). “Good, now catch.”
V: Claws his way into holding his right heel.
S: “Walk. Other side. Catch!”
V: Reaching…reaching…desperation mounting…finds the left foot and gets a grip. S: “No, no, that is MY foot!”
Ok, back to “the scoop.” The asana photos Sharath showed us included some recognizable poses, but also some very advanced postures, almost certainly fifth and sixth series: hovering in chatvari w/ the legs in padmasana (only the hands on the floor), each foot in the same side armpit (dwi pada yogadanasana?), etc. As he showed us the pics, we guessed about the “project”:
“Are you working on a book?”
“Yes. Maybe one or two years. Many things I want to say.”
“There are many yoga books.”
“Yes. Many of them are crap.”
Soon, ashtanga yoga returns to the Quad Cities. No crying!