Yogi Assignment: Seek
To say that the room was packed is a dramatic understatement. There were so many eager yogis gathered from all over the world that yoga mats were stacked nearly on top of each other, the corners of them touching. Some who arrived late placed their mats at any angle of available floor space. Others who got there too late were sent home to return for the next batch. The first group of students at KPJAYI, called the first batch, starts at 4:30 AM. But it’s not really 4:30 AM. It’s much earlier. The shala is on what people call “shala time”. This was a legacy left from the now-deceased Guru who was perhaps the most punctual man in India. Pattabhi Jois loved to be early and to get everyone else, including his students on time, he set the clocks in the shala 18 minutes ahead of standard Indian time. The tradition is kept alive today. So, 4:30 AM actually means 4:12 AM. Doors open about 20-30 minutes before the practice starts so that everyone can get their spots, use the bathroom and just generally get situated. That means eager students start lining up around 3 AM. No matter how many times I visit India to practice with my teacher, R. Sharath Jois, it always feels like practicing yoga in the middle of the night to me. And I’ve been coming here for 20 years. This obscenely early time of day, the hours between 4-6 am, is called the Bramha Murtha. It’s not just torture to make students do yoga then, it is stated in the scriptures that the Bramha Murtha is the most auspicious hour for spiritual practice. The mind and body are most likely to taste the elixir of the eternal at these early hours of the day. For me, this is place where the inner work of the yoga practice happens most intensively, at this time, is this shala—you could call it Mysore magic.
Here I am on my mat, equal parts sleepy and excited, nervous and grateful, eager and surrendered. I’m lucky that I got a spot in the room. Some people were practicing out in the lobby and others upstairs on the bathroom balconies. I was next to Laruga Glaser, who is an amazingly inspirational yogi (you can find her classes on Omstars!) and we shared a smile and a hug before practice. Then, my teacher Sharath entered the room. Silence followed and a palpable energy shift flowed through like a wave as all the Ashtangis got up, nearly in unison to Samasthitih. My eyes were closed when he walked in so I actually felt the oscillation in my body before I saw it was time to start. My first practice at the shala in two years, my first practice of the year on New Year’s day—what a blessing.
I don’t know how many people were in that first batch, probably a hundred, or maybe a hundred a fifty. But it hit me like a freight train, in a good way if there could be a good freight train direct hit. Like a call to presence, I stood absolutely still in anticipation of the journey of the practice yet to come. In silence I was mindful of my heartbeat, my breath, my body and its placement on the mat, on the ground, on this patch of Earth in India known as Mysore. With the sound OM everything changed in a way that I can only liken to my very first practice more than two decades ago. All these years later I still remember being a young twenty-two year old standing on my mat and feeling the holy vibration of OM in my first Ashtanga Yoga class. It cleared my mind and opened my heart. Today I felt something similar, but not in the personal, self-centered way I did when I first started this journey. As the OM rang out in a hundred-plus-person harmony I felt the interconnected network of us all. All these yoga practitioners from all over the world, gathered to this mecca of Ashtanga Yoga for one purpose—to practice. The sheer beauty of all the hearts united by this humble and universal path touched me in a unique and revelatory way. I was moved to tears by the depth and power of it all. To be here, in a space where entry to the community is not earned by anything else other than your love of the practice, is a blessing beyond measure. To be here, in a group of human begins willing to make the necessary sacrifices to come to India and devote a portion of their lives to spiritual practice, is an immense privilege. There I was, part of it all, part of a sacred and eternal dance of seekers, a lineage of the heart that has drawn countless students to the yoga practice over thousands of years. Sure, there are a thousand divisions in the yoga world, and in the world at large. Sure, there are petty problems in and limitations to the Ashtanga Yoga practice. Sure, people are people and there is always drama, politics, jealousy, competition and in-fighting in every group. But for a moment at least, I got tuned in to the pure intention of the heart space of all my fellow yogis and it spoke to my soul.
The language of the practice is a prayer spoken through the movements of the body. Practice is a body prayer, an expression of the innate divinity within each sentient being. What defines yoga is a spiritual quest, a kind of seeking that is as eternal as the human race. In fact, I’d be so bold as to say that seeking itself, not just for worldly pleasure but for the highest truth, may just be the defining feature of humanity. As it is written, those who seek, shall find. And what unites every single Ashtanga Yoga student who makes the journey to come and practice at the shala in Mysore is the urgency of their seeking. What you find on the mat is what brings you back to the practice, over and over again, as worship of all that is holy and sacred.
This heartfelt space stands in stark contrast to the increasingly more advanced poses that seem to permeate the yoga space in general. If there’s one thing that I want to do in the world of yoga, it’s to change the paradigm of extreme ableism being the qualifier of spiritual growth. I’m not against advanced poses, I do them and benefit from them. Just because someone can put their leg behind their head doesn’t mean they’re a spiritually advanced person. But, if the act of trying to put your leg behind your head teaches you patience, humility, kindness and peace, then yoga is working even if you never the pose. It’s not about the pose, it’s about what the journey of the pose has taught you. It never matters whether “get” a pose, it matters how well you try, what your intention is and what you take away from the experience. Today in the midst of a relatively advanced group of practitioners, I watched Sharath assist all the students whose level of strength or flexibility might cause them to feel unsure of whether they belonged. But with his attention and encouragement these students flourished in the practice. I remember when I first started practicing Ashtanga Yoga, the thing that I loved about this traditional practice is that it can really be made accessible for all levels with the guidance of a qualified teacher. While there is an element of discipline to the practice, there is no judgement for which poses you can and cannot do. It’s the fact that you practice that matters. Whether you’re an advanced yogi able to perform complex asanas or you’re working through the basics, it’s all just practice. No one is here to judge anyone or pass out prizes for the highest lift up. But perhaps, that’s a lesson that we each have to learn for ourselves. I used to judge myself and my worthiness by how well I performed the poses. I’m not sure of a time and date for when the shift happened. All I know is that one day I realized that my sense of self-worth was rooted in something so much deeper than a shape my body can or cannot make. Every being, including you and me, has an intrinsic value and worth that is so vast it is immeasurable and priceless. Your light, the spark of the divine that illuminates your breath, your body and your mind is consciousness itself. When you wake up, the world shines that little bit brighter. You matter, just because you’re you. It’s that simple. I don’t know what path you need to go on to experience your beauty and your greatness, but I do know that what you truly seek you will one day find.
Your first Yogi Assignment of the year is just that—seek. Identify what you seek because that defines the direction of your journey, not just in practice but in life. Dive deeply into both conscious and subconscious levels of seeking. Do you seek fame, fortune, and popularity? Are you chasing satiety in gratifying the senses through pleasure? Are you running from pain? Or, are you interested in seeking the answers to the most difficult and important questions of the human race? Who are we and why are we here? From whence do we come when we enter this life and where will go when it’s all over? What is my role in this thing called life?
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”