Chapter One: First Trip to India
When I arrived in Mysore the first time, I was invited to a potluck by a woman named Petra from the Netherlands. She was a Zappa fan, had red kinky hair, and wore colorful, high top converse tennis shoes. I told her I would bring a watermelon. I saw a huge pile being sold in the shade on the side of the road before the railroad tracks. The woman told me Guruji said they were contaminated with irrigation water and not to. Later in the day I was told not to come, I should have taken this as a message I was not welcome in the community. I believe it was in February when I started to practice at the Old Shala. I was staying at Post Office House by this time with a couple from Denver named Joan and Eric. Before this I was staying in a room at the Kaveri Lodge.
I arrived early December and spent the first week trying to register with Guruji. I would go to the Old Shala, knock on the front door, no one would answer. On one occasion Guruji’s driver was parked out front with the white Ambassador and pointed to the upstairs window, Guruji did not come down. I found out Guruji was doing Puja for his wife the month of December who had died the year before. I had read about her death in the Yoga Journal and had wanted to go to Mysore and meet Guruji before he died.
A couple from Manchester England were staying down the hall from me at the Kaveri Lodge. They informed me Guruji was doing Puja for his wife and told me Sharath was teaching his first workshop at his mother’s house in Gokulam. They invited me to ride along in the morning and register with Sharath for the remainder of December. Sharath and Guruji were going to be teaching at the Old Shala in Lakshmi Puram in January and going to Australia to teach in February.
I rode to Sharath’s class in Gokulam in the early morning darkness with a yoga student from Spain who worked as a waiter. The room was dark at Saraswathi’s. It was like being in the circus. I had never practiced in a room full of people who knew anything other than primary series. The only adjustment I remember Sharath giving me was the proper way to do headstand. I had learned the Iyengar method, which was cupping your palms together and resting your head on the floor between your forearms. Guruji taught you were to clasp your hands around the head and lift ever so slightly off the floor, as pressure on the top of the head caused madness. I never adopted this method until the last few years of my practice. This method is important for developing the strength needed in Pincha Mayurasana or Peacock Feather Pose.
I took a workshop from Felicity Green who is a Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher in the dance studio at the University of Montana. She made it clear she did not like me. She had us do a standing forward bend with our backs against the wall. Came up behind me and thrust her pubic bone into my rear. I thought this was rude, but I got the point. A few days after the workshop I had a dream where I was asleep on top of a folded-up set of bleachers in a gymnasium. In the dream a peacock flew up and landed on top of me. I wrote the dream out and sent it to her and asked what it meant. I never heard back but think now that it had to do with the fact that the final asana, I struggled with was Pincha Mayurasana or Peacock Feather pose.
Some people call it forearm balance as you place your forearms on the floor and walk your feet in and rise-up and balance on your forearms. It was not until the end of my practice I realized instead of scrunching your shoulders down you must open your chest and press your shoulders back. This opening is required to balance the weight of the body on the forearms. If the shoulders are scrunched together the hands, go together on the floor. If the shoulders are open the hands stay apart. It is usually easier for women to do the pose than men. I think it is because they are more apt to have an open chest. I believe this comes from having to carry the weight of their breasts.
When Guruji was finished with the Puja for Amma there was a Bandara on the roof of the building where Guruji’s family was living in Gokulam. I was invited and given directions. I had rented a bicycle for ten rupees a week. I was going to bicycle from Lakshmi Puram to Gokulam with the couple from Manchester. I had walked with them to the top of Chamundi Hill. On the way to Gokulam, I got a flat tire, and we were separated. I looked for a shop to have my tire repaired. It was Sunday but found one open. Eventually I found my way to Guruji’s in Gokulam, but the couple from Manchester never arrived. I remember seeing the lake from the corner where all the flower vendors were and thinking it was the wrong direction, turning around and heading the other way. Now I realize either one would have taken me there.
I arrived early even after the delay and was shown to a room on the main floor where I was to wait with a group of westerners. I was wearing a silver Ganesh ring on my left hand, and a woman asked where my wife was, I said at home. The students were looking at me intently. I think they thought I was an old student of Guruji’s. I was just an old student. When the Bandura was ready, we were shown to the roof where a colorful canopy and tables were set for the feast. We were all seated, and waiters served food. It was extraordinary. I felt like royalty. I mostly recall western yoga students, but there must have been a few natives.
This is where I met Joan and Eric. We recognized we were both from the Western United States. They invited me to come share Post Office House in Lakshmi Puram. On the way out, there was a reception line to greet Guruji. Students would pranam and touch his feet, but I was not familiar with this gesture of respect and reached to shake his hand. Guruji asked me my name and where I was from. I think he recognized me from when I was pounding on his door the first week. I told him Montana, he said he had been there. Guruji and Tim Miller had taught at the Feathered Pipe Ranch, which was a retreat space in Montana run by a woman named India, sometime in the 90’s. Unfortunately, I had not attended as it was an elite space and most of the clientele were Californians. My yoga teacher at the time had contacted India about attending but was told it would be too strenuous. Something I do not believe as Guruji would accommodate anyone.
A woman from Los Angeles invited me to ride back to Lakshmi Puram with her and her driver. She was wearing a wedding ring, but I was intimidated. I had my bicycle, but recall helping someone push their scooter up the hill because it would not start. I found my way back to Lakshmi Puram and began my practice with Guruji and Sharath at the Old Shala. But first I had to go to Conference at four o’clock in the afternoon and register. I went with Joan and Eric and when we walked into the front sitting room there were two wicker chairs. I sat down in one, not realizing they were Sharath and Guruji’s. It was not until Guruji walked in the room that I realized I should not be sitting in the chair. We went one by one into his office to register. He would ask our mother’s name and we would give him money in payment for the month, and he would record it in a journal.
The Old Shala had been the family home until they built the new building in Gokulam where the Bandura was held, which was across the street from where Guruji would build his new Shala. One of the few people I remember from the practice room was Guy Donahue. It was a small room and would accommodate about a dozen students. We each had our assigned spot and a particular time to arrive for practice. We would sit on the stairs and wait until our spot opened and we would roll out our mat and begin. The toilet was at the top of the stairs and the upstairs room was used as the changing area and where people took their savasana or rest after practice. The room was coed, and I was not used to the lack of inhibition displayed by the Europeans.
On my first trip to India in 1998 I flew into Madras, which is now called Chennai, on Malaysia Airline. It was a great flight and all the Stewards looked like Elvis Presley and the stewardesses their consort. I had a layover in Kuala Lumpur and was put up in a room at a hotel located in the airport. Meal passes were provided. There were chocolates on the pillows. It was the most luxurious accommodations I had ever experienced. The flight out of Kuala Lumpur was not as luxurious as the flight in. The plane was old and poorly maintained even though it was a Malaysia Airline flight. My seat would not stay in the upright position and the tray table was loose. In the boarding area before the plane departed a young tennis team from India who had been in Malaysia competing expressed concern, I was flying into India alone with no one to meet me and no accommodations. They tried to give me as much advice and guidance as possible, but there was no way they could prepare me for what I was to experience.
When the flight landed in India, I had the overwhelming feeling of arriving home. There was an old Indian man departing the plane wearing a white Dotti who was so excited he wet himself on the way into the terminal. It was the middle of the night, and I took my copy of the Lonely Planet to a pay phone and began to call hotels to try and find lodging. The exits of the terminal were lined with Indians trying to book rides and accommodations and drivers holding signs to pick up riders. Whenever someone would answer the phone, they would ask if an Indian were in my party, when I told them no, they would tell me nothing was available. Finally, a driver approached and told me he would take me to a hotel called the Windsor. I was intimidated but had no other option other than to spend the night in the terminal. He asked for 3,000 rupees for the fare to the hotel and a night’s lodging. I put trust in him and loaded my luggage into his car and headed out.
The route to the Windsor Hotel took us through slums. On the way we were pulled over by Police who wanted to know what we were doing out in the middle of the night. I was in the back and the driver told me to stay in the car, he got out and went back and explained.
I don’t remember arriving at the hotel and being taken to my room. What I do recall is getting up in the morning and going into the hall where there was a huge plate glass window looking out onto the street. I could see what looked like all of humanity flowing by. There were auto rickshaws, taxis, horse drawn carts, trucks, lorry’s, ox carts, bicycles, scooters, people walking, bicycle rickshaws, all going every which way, every imaginable form of transportation on their way to morning routines.
I went back into my room in utter shock and realized I was not ready to leave the security of the hotel. I can remember taking a shower, although it might have been the night before. The room was modern and tiled in marble. After I was cleaned up, I went downstairs to the front desk to find out where I could have breakfast. There was a restaurant in the hotel, which was the best I was to eat in in all my stays in India.
Even though it was only December it was hot, they had a pool in the courtyard, I took advantage of it. It was not fancy and was surrounded by lawn. I asked at the front desk how I could get to Mysore. They told me a travel agent would be in the lobby in the afternoon. When I went down there was a chubby young man sitting at a table covered with brochures.
Originally, I was going to Kerela to Ammachi the Hugging Saint’s Ashram and meeting a woman whose mother had a summer home in my hometown. She had spent ten summers trying to convince me to go to India. She told me she would meet me there the first of December, but once I booked my flight, she informed me she was unable to get a flight until the New Year. I decided to go straight to Mysore.
The Travel Agent told me he would buy me a ticket on the Shatabdi Express for a thousand rupees. I gave him the money and asked for a receipt. He told me just trust, which became my mantra. Later that evening I went down to retrieve my ticket from the agent. He told me he would accompany me in a rickshaw in the morning to the station and make sure I got on the train.
In the early morning when I went down to the lobby, I was told a rickshaw driver was waiting out front. The Travel Agent was nowhere to be found. When we arrived at the station, after passing through the relatively quiet, darkened streets of Chennai, the steps were covered with sleeping people. I made my way into the station with my luggage after gingerly stepping around the throngs. Once inside I found the platform where the Shatabdi Express was to depart for Bangalore, which was where I had to change trains. Porters wearing Red Turbans were determined they were going to carry my bags.
When I went to Mysore the first time, I had hoped to learn Intermediate series, but found you had to have been to Mysore at least once and be able to stand up out of Urdhva Dhanurasana, Upward Facing Bow, or Back Bending before you could advance to Intermediate Series from Primary. The teachers from California who had taught in town during the summers had not told me this. Sharath asked me who my teacher was, I told him the name of the teacher from my hometown and of course he had never heard of her. He assumed I had a teacher who had been to Mysore. Consequently, my version of Primary Series was as if I had learned the practice on another planet. My first exposure to Sharath and Guruji was spent polishing my Primary Practice.
When I arrived at the station In Mysore there were many drivers competing for fares into town. I accepted a ride from a man with a van who spoke English. He wanted to take me to a hotel he was familiar with. I wanted to go to the Kaveri Lodge as that was where I had read in a book on the Ashrams of India that the Ashtanga Yoga students stayed. When we got there, he gave me his card and wanted me to continue to use him as my driver. I never contacted him.
When the month of January was about up Guy Donahue announced he was going to be teaching at Kovelam Beach in Kerela for the month of February. A lot of the students who had been practicing in January with Guruji decided to go. We all booked our tickets separately, but when we boarded the train, we were all in the same compartment. It was a beautiful trip in a non-AC car with barred, open windows and ceiling fans, and we got to watch the scenery flow by. We would be going near Ammachi’s Ashram in Kerela, and I decided to get off and spend the night. Several other students decided to get off as well. We had to take a boat on a cannel to get to the Ashram. On the road to the boat the Communist symbol of a Sickle and Hammer were painted in red. I ran into the woman I knew from home. She wanted me to stay but I chose to go on to Kovelam Beach with the others. In the morning I had darshan with Ammachi and I almost missed the boat. A woman from our group ran back and got me.
Kovelam Beach was fantastic. The yoga students were more accepting than in Mysore. There was a yoga student from Amsterdam. He had been a professional dancer and had toured the world with the minimalist composer Philp Glass’s music company. He was only thirty-five but was retired from dancing. His dance experience made the yoga practice easy for him. He looked like the Marlboro Man but was flamboyant. I did not get to know him until the group of us went to Kovelam Beach. We all ate in cafes on the beach and stayed at different hotels. It was my first time staying on a beach and experiencing the continual pounding of the surf. The children begging was overwhelming. I did not like giving them coins, but when I returned home, I started making monthly donations to The Children’s Fund, Plan International.
When I arrived back in my hometown the cultural shock was more intense than going to India. I worked on my backdrops at the wall since I had no one to assist. Back Bending is practiced after the Seated Poses are completed. Traditionally a person does Urdhva Dhanurasana or Upward Facing Bow three times and then stands at the front of the mat with arms crossed and waits for the teacher to come and assist with drop backs. If the student can, after three repetitions of Urdhva Dhanurasana, they standup on their own and drop back three times and standup and wait at the front of their mat with their arms crossed until the teacher comes.
The teacher puts his arms around the student’s waist and places one foot between the students’ feet which are hip width apart and puts the other foot back to brace himself and rocks the student back and forth with their arms crossed three times and on the third time the student attempts to take their hands back to the floor. If they can go all the way to the floor, after the third repetition the teacher has them walk their hands in towards their heels and potentially reaches to grab their wrists and place their hands on their ankles. With more flexible students the teacher will put one hand on the students back at this point and try and catch the wrists before they touch the floor and place their hands on their calves. This is a wonderful practice and raises the energy up the spine to the crown of the head. With no one to assist me I worked on it by standing a few feet away with my back to the wall and taking my hands over my head and dropping back to the wall three or more times. Once I felt comfortable with this, I would walk my hands down the wall to the floor for five breaths and walk my hands back up the wall to standing. This is how Guruji instructed us to practice.
It took me five years before I was able to drop back to the floor from standing and stand back up again on my own without the wall. This was the spring of 2003, and I began to make plans to go back to India and learn Intermediate Series. During the intervening five years I had gone to Seattle on several occasions to see Ammachi and practiced with a couple who were Certified Teachers of Sharath and Guruji. I arranged for them to come to Missoula and teach a workshop in the spring of 2000. They would go back to India and practice with Guruji regularly. Besides the yoga practice I had in common with the husband the practice of Kirtan or Chanting the Divine Names of the Hindu Gods. When I was in India the first time, I began taking tabla lessons from a teacher named Sada Shiva Swami. He taught me the basics and I continued to practice tabla in the intervening five years and play tabla with the teacher from Seattle when he played Kirtan at his workshops in Missoula.
Tension developed with the teacher from Seattle. I am not sure why as I do not usually consider myself competitive. When I went to India the first time, I told very few people and essentially disappeared, and nobody missed me. I became active in the yoga studio upon my return. I didn’t teach but practiced early in the morning five days a week at the studio and at home on Sundays. As my friend Shankara who had introduced me to yoga told me, “Don’t worry about being a teacher, be an example.” Traditionally the practice is done six days a week and Saturday and the Moon Days are taken off. The Moon Days are the New Moon or Dark Moon as it is called in India and the Full Moon. They are considered spiritually significant in India. The Indians observe religious rituals on the Moon Days. Guruji told the Western Students they were powerful days and if a practitioner was injured on one these days it would take a long time to heal and thus not to.