We are delighted to have been featured in Om Yoga and lifestyle magazine this month with an article about our recent workshop ‘Moving to Mysore’…
Moving to Mysore
‘Come to the other end of the room today. You’re ready for self-practice.’ So began my journey from the comfort and security of a guided Astanga practice, to the inner focus and self-reliance of practising Mysore-style. I remember my alarm when my teacher Sarah Vaughan, founder of The Yoga Hutch in Surbiton, first coaxed me away from my safety net many years ago (how on earth will I remember the sequence? Everyone else knows what they’re doing!) and I also remember the lightbulb moment, 90 minutes later, as I lay in Savasana. This was how the practice became an embodiment of concentration (dharana). This was how it became so instinctive that it could evolve into a moving meditation (dhyana). This was yoga.
‘Mysore-style’ owes its name to the Indian town where Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois developed and taught his Astanga yoga method. A practice intended for ‘householder’ yogis – ordinary folk for whom Himalayan cave hermitage was a tad impractical – Jois originally taught students individually but within a group setting. The postures were given to each student gradually and sequentially, allowing each person to develop their practice in their own time and with individual attention from Guruji. At first, a student might learn only Sun Salutations A before finishing. Then they would be taught B, before progressing, one asana at a time, through the standing and seated sequences. These days it’s more common to learn Astanga in a led class, where the teacher guides students through the entire sequence whilst offering hands-on adjustments throughout. This has the advantage of creating a shared energy within the room as everyone flows through the sequence together. It’s a good way of learning the structure of the practice, and instils discipline or ‘tapas’. The disadvantages of practising in this way are that the teacher has a very limited amount of time in which to assist a student in a posture – most asana are held for just 5 breaths, and the teacher can’t abandon guidance for the rest of the class – and that students become reliant on being led. As the aim of yoga is to turn the attention inwards, steady the mind, and ultimately meet with moments of Self-realisation, this reliance can easily become an obstacle to progression. That’s a good time to go back to Astanga’s roots, and move to Mysore.
Senior Astanga teachers Andy Gill and Sarah Vaughan recently held a workshop in Surrey called ‘Why Mysore? Unlocking the Power of the Self-Practice Method’, aimed at helping regular Astanga practitioners to make the move to the independence of self-practice. It’s only natural to feel some apprehension when we step out of our comfort zones, and encountering resistance to change is all part of the process of progress, both on and off the mat! Andy began the workshop by explaining that all of the ideas we would explore were presented as a sharing of his and Sarah’s extensive experience, and were not to be held up as ‘truth’, advising that both this workshop and Mysore practice as a whole are a process of self-enquiry (svadhyaya). Such a refreshingly non-dogmatic approach to teaching is occasionally lacking in the Astanga world, and this humility opened the door to a wonderfully thoughtful group discussion of some of the big questions: what is the purpose of yoga? What are we doing and why? How does it work? Far beyond popular-media concepts which water yoga down to exercise and relaxation, the overwhelming agreement was that our practice brings us a refuge from mind-chatter; a sense of peace; the opportunity to look after and look at ourselves; the ability to find a moment’s pause before reacting and so make better choices; a feeling of mental space; and a sense of selfcompassion which in turn extends to others, to name but a few of the shared perceptions. These are the first-hand experiences which lead us to an awareness of who we are beyond the labels; an awakening to our true nature; to, ultimately, freedom.
So how does this magic work? As yoga students gradually discover, it works by bringing us into the present moment. Normally, our habitual thought patterns, memories and unique experiences all combine to form a lens through which we see life; our individual map of the world. As we all have different components in our impressions (kleshas), we all navigate life from a different map. And whilst our maps are necessary to function in the world, problems arise when we become slaves to them – when we operate only from our place of conditioned thinking, and react to the world accordingly. When we derive meaning from our conditioned thinking, then we are continually creating our future from our past. But… if we can become present, then we have the opportunity to create a future free of the past and its conditioned thinking. To respond to what actually is, rather than react to what we think is, and to begin to see life more clearly. As the very first of Patanjali’s sutras says: ‘Yoga Begins Now’ (Atha Yoganusasanam). Now: in every moment, the only moment which ever exists. So how does this relate to Mysore? Well, a led practice, by its very nature, will tend to lead the senses outward; to the sound of the teacher’s voice, the language of the instructions and then to the process of interpreting those instructions with the mind. That might set up all sorts of thoughts, reactions and tensions; you might struggle to maintain the pace set by the teacher, or find it so slow that you can’t moderate your breath and meet with your flow. In a led practice it is of course possible to be present with your internal experience, but it can be a hard thing to do. If the senses are drawn outward, as by definition they are, then it’s much easier to become distracted.
By way of contrast, a self-practice approach supports the possibility of an internal journey, a quiet withdrawal of the senses to the experience of what is happening in the body. Of course, there is an initial learning curve when moving to selfpractice, which may temporarily have the opposite effect. ‘What posture comes next? Did I do that right? Have I already done this one?’ Some bewilderment is to be expected as part of the journey; when we move to the next stage of anything, there’s a period of adjustment and finding our feet! This is where it’s useful to know about the four stages of competence. As Andy explained, at first, we are Unconsciously Incompetent – we don’t know what we don’t know. Then we move into Conscious Incompetence – we become aware of what we don’t yet know. Thirdly there is Conscious Competence – we are acquiring new understanding and skills, but must think and concentrate to stay on track; and finally we gain mastery of those skills and move into Unconscious Competence. As Sarah shared with us, in this state of total present awareness or ‘flow’ the skill becomes instinctive. These stages echo the last four of the eight limbs of yoga – withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara) leads to concentration (dharana), leads to meditation (dhyana), leads to bliss and merging into one-ness (samadhi); and it is this progression which arises when we move into self-practice. It’s important to realise that this is not a linear process – different states and stages appear at different times, and they co-exist, ebbing and flowing between themselves. When we realise this, it becomes easier to give ourselves permission to be a beginner and to cultivate a ‘don’t know’ mind, irrespective of the length of our yoga career.
Bringing it all together
On a practical level, Mysore allows each student to work individually with the teacher, essentially receiving a private lesson within the shared breath and energy of a group class. There’s time to explore and fine-tune postures with the support of the teacher, in a way which honours the capabilities of the individual whilst meeting the intention of the asana. The beauty of a sustained Astanga practice is that it offers the opportunity to delve deep into the laboratory of our personal experience. Unlike the story of the man who digs many shallow holes and fails to find water for his well, by excavating more deeply into one hole, we find the water that lies a little lower. When we also bring a softness to that digging – an acceptance that, on some days you will hit rock! – then gradually that sustained practice begins to yield what we seek. In this way, the discipline (tapas) of the practice meets with surrender to what is, and step by tiny step, progress is made. Our exploration of self-practice in the workshop led to exciting breakthroughs and discoveries of new dimensions. As we practised ‘mini-Mysore’ – the Focus12 count, some sun salutations, the first few standing postures, and a return to the Focus 12 – students began to realise that they knew more than they thought; that this was actually their practice; and that they had the self-reliance to do just a little, by themselves, at home. They became aware of the practice as a beautiful flowing meditation, as they acquired mastery over small sections. This is the ‘yoga mala’ which Pattabhi Jois shared with the world – the breath as the thread on which we place the beads of asana; the continuous journey which is at the heart of our ancient practice of yoga
Becky Pell. Yoga teacher at the Yoga Hutch. Yoga therapist and touring sound engineer.