Yoga. Why?

 following on from
https://kevollier.com/2015/05/25/so-18-years-on-to-be-a-yoga-teacher/

I think my decision to do the teacher training has brought up a lot of questions, particularly the one that will I ever teach? I’m not sure I will. I have no intention to but then I hear so many teachers say that they said the same thing right up until they were qualified. But other questions that have been loitering in the back of my mind have come to the forefront and the questioning of yoga has begun; it reminds me of why we should question everything which was brought home to me by David Icke, no less, who’s conference I attended back in 1991, (which was his post turquoise/pre lizard period). He was giving an example of why we should question everything (and in yoga that means questioning the seemingly ‘they know best’ unquestionables).
David’s wife
was cooking something for dinner but before she added this whatever – it – was to a pan, she cut the corners off it and the conversation apparently went something like this:

‘Why do you cut the corners off that?’
‘Well that’s how it’s done, it’s always done like this’
‘Who says exactly?’
‘That’s how my mother has always done it’
‘Yes, but why? Could you ring her and ask her, right now?’
So Mrs Icke calls her mum and asks why she always cut the corners off to which came the reply,
‘We had to, it wouldn’t fit in the pan otherwise’ !

Kev Ollier - David Icke

How often do we leave a slug of tea in the bottom of a cup still? A memory from when there were tea leaves and I always leave a pool of tea and yet I’ve never had tea leaves!

It was at a workshop with Nancy Gilgoff – who is one of the original western students who studied yoga under Sri Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India – where I learnt why we ‘supposed to’ do a 6 day a week practice ( I say ‘we’, but I really mean ‘they’) and not a full 7 days. It was simply because Mrs Pattabhi wanted to go shopping with her husband and so it was changed from a 7 day to 6 day practice to placate her. This would then follow, that had she insisted on three days with her beloved, then the western Ashtangis would be doing a 4 days a week practice.  Who says it has to be so many days a week? Was it just Pattabhi or was it Krishnamachurya, Pattabhi’s teacher, who insisted, and if so, why? Was it because he had nothing better or more pressing to do?

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Nancy Gilgoff practicing with Pattabhi Joisback in the day

At a Kino Macgregor workshop in London a couple of years ago, she explained that it is not essential to take your arms out to the side coming in to the first sun salutation in a crowded space, particularly if you’re likely to smack your neighbour in the face on the way up. Lifting the arms over the head and joining hands is all that apparently matters.
It was also Kino that expressed that there is so much dogma attached to yoga, especially with Ashtanga, in practices such as Nodi Shodhan (alternate nostril breathing) where she called the action of pressing the fingers into the third eye on the forehead as simply ego – it’s closing the nostrils alternately that matters.

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Kino

It seems we all expect (without question) that Yoga, especially Ashtanga, has to have tropically heated rooms, so hot that if you close your eyes you could hear tree frogs. Gregor Maehle says that if you want to age prematurely in yoga then heat the room. I quote from a post he sent to Facebook about this very question

“I keep receiving questions regarding whether it’s important or good to heat the yoga shala and whether this aids in detoxing. I also hear people reasoning that the shala should be heated to emulate the heat of the gangetic plains in India, which is supposed to be the native environment of yogis. Now during the 1980 and 90’s I travelled extensively through the gangetic plains but I must say that I found them surprisingly bereft of yogis. On the other hand if you went up into the freezing Himalayas you found that the yogis were stacked up to the rafters. Surprising, isn’t it!
Do you remember that even Krishnamacharya went up into the Himalayas to practice tummo, yoga of inner fire, while sitting on the ice? You can’t practice that down in the gangetic plains.
Nowadays Western yogis are really emphatic about keeping the windows of the yoga shala closed. I remember that neither KP Jois old shala in Lakshmipuram nor the Parakala Matt in Mysore where T Krishnamacharya taught ever had any windows. And I remember that in January at 4.30 AM I always froze in those drafty windowless rooms. And nobody offered to turn on any heaters because there weren’t any!
People who practice in such a fashion usually age prematurely and if you look at them 10 years later they have a washed out and drained look to themselves because of all the prana they lost, by practicing too vigorously under too hot conditions.
Notice that the yogis were very concerned about loosing tejas (inner glow) and one of the ways of preventing that is to rub the sweat produced during pranayama back into the skin.
**This is a technique, however, that should ONLY be used in the context of pranayama and NOT during asana, during which excessive sweating should be avoided**
Hence, do not heat the room too much and if it’s warm outside keep the windows open. Many yogic texts (shastras) state that the shala should be well aired.”

Ekapada-Gregor
Gregor Maehle

Then there was the time that I was at one of the Brian Cooper workshops in Glastonbury. I respect Brian immensely, particularly for his ability and total honesty and his very dry sense of humour (at least I think it is). He was asked by one student as to what is the point in getting a leg behind your head and his answer was “there is no point, what’s the point to any of the postures, fun? To show off at a party?”  I love Brian.

brian
Brian Cooper

Of course, the BIG question is why do yoga? Usually you have to keep asking why to each answer you give yourself before you get to the crux of an answer and one that might surprise you. Was it really to be fitter? You could ruin your knees and go jogging to do that. Was it to try and stave off the inevitable, to look good, to feel young again-  or was it to go within, to your ‘true’ self? Maybe the first answers are what you think are honest ones yet maybe deep down it was the latter we seek. Eventually in yoga, to those that stay the distance, that turning inwards, will happen to everybody and surely that’s the idea? Yoga is a non-religious spiritual practice. It is not for atheists. If you’re an atheist and you’re practicing yoga then it’s simply not yoga – it could be exercise, it could be gymnastics but it certainly is not yoga, whatever the sign says above the door, and it really should go without having to keep reminding ourselves that there are eight limbs of yoga and the physical is just one, the lesser one at that, and more ‘yoga schools’ would be beneficial to teach, or to at least discuss, the heart of yoga – the other seven limbs.

Asana is by far the easiest limb to master. One’s self is the holy grail.

kala

Mysore – The Guide

There is a lot more to the Indian city of Mysore than most people realise including the western yogis. It is the perfect city to head to for the India virgin. Not too large, it has all the elements of India, is low on hassle and scams and has an air of chill out about it. You do not have to be on a yoga course to go but the vast majority of westerners that do so are there only for that purpose,  and you will soon discover that there are not too many other westerners around outside of the main yoga suburb of Gokalum meaning that it’s a city for the residents and not necessarily for tourists per se, so you get to experience a slice of real India – and it’s perfect for a 4 day/5 night stop.

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The nearest international airport you could fly into is Bangalore and I’d recommend having a pre-booked taxi driver standing, holding up a sign with your name on it as you exit the airport with your baggage who will take you straight to Mysore – a 4 hour trip, that for the uninitiated is like a full on acid trip, but with no comedown (possibly ever) and that for only £28 which is a much more desirable alternative than a 3 hour trip into Bangalore itself where you will likely pay at least that much for a room – see
https://kevollier.com/2012/12/02/helloindia/

Mysore Palace

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Beautiful and opulent and yet I couldn’t help thinking that the Maharini who had it built was more than a little egotistical but simultaneously on a guilt trip. In the main overlook hall he’d hanged huge paintings of various deities along the back wall with one of himself as the centre-piece. It was a shoes off affair to walk around as it is also with the temples in India and that in itself was quite freeing and they did have the shoe organisation off to a tee rivaling even those of 10 pin bowling alleys back in blighty
When we exited back out into the gardens we spotted some elephants with handlers in an off-piste bit of the grounds in the distance and so went to inspect as these were the first elephants we’d seen so far on this trip and seeing our curiosity the handlers surreptitiously beckoned us over and insisted we stroke their trunks, sit on them without any form of saddle as they had them gallop and kneel, be a bit scared and then pay them a weeks wage to be able to get back into the public, elephantless area.

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Each week on a Sunday evening and every evening during the Dasara festival the palace and all the buildings are illuminated in an instant and it is definitely a Mysore highlight so unless you’re there for Dasara it would be prudent to factor in a Sunday evening if possible.

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The Silk Factory

Grab a tuk tuk and head over to the silk factory. Where you will see the most beautiful sari’s made from scratch – from silkworms in situ, through to the added gold thread, which the workers encourage you to feel and touch as it whizzes through their looms and you weave between the huge machines listening to their directions so as not to decapitate oneself on the virtually invisible and very taut silk thread that connects the who place like a spiders web  ( they’re not big on health and safety) to the finished product. Nothing is hidden here, it’s not a sweat shop, but immaculately clean and tidy and the workers loved you being there and taking an interest in their work..

From here it’s only a 5 minute tuk tuk to the Sandalwood Factory which couldn’t be so different. It’s as if the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has been turned into a sultry, jungle of incense stick and oil making workshops with the Sandalwood pervading the air at every breath. It was quintessentially Indian and here the workers were extremely chilled out and a tad nonchalant having not much work because, we were told, there is a serious shortage of sandalwood trees on Earth and hence it is becoming increasingly expensive.

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Before reading further, please bear with me – because also, not too far away from both the Silk and Sandalwood factories, is the Mysore Railway Museum which we managed to get around rather quickly and I think it’s really for rail enthusiasts that are really, really, very, very enthusiastic. We didn’t see anyone wearing an anorak but then it was a warm day, but for the sake of my train spotter friend (be honest, we all have at least one) – here is the entire list of what’s on display. (Feel free to scroll down to the next block letters)

ES 506 4-6-2 is the first locomotive at the entrance. An Austin rail-motor car. Several inspection cars, one inspection car is used as a ticket office. Two royal coaches that belonged to the Maharaja of Mysore. The Maharini Saloon carriage that has a kitchen, dining car unit and royal toilet dating back to 1899.yawn. A W.G Bagnall #1625 which was made in 1900 for Khushalgarh – Kohat – Thal Railway which was a military frontier line, was subsequently transferred to North Western Railways. It operated at Timber Depot in Marala and was transferred later to Dhilwan Creosoting plant. This 2′-6″ gauge locomotive is configured as 2-4-2ST. Class E #37244 4-4-4T from SIR built by North British Locomotive Co. in 1920. Originally # 8, it was one of the three superheated locomotives. Class TS/1 #37338 2-6-2T from made by W.G. Bagnall in 1932 for Mysore State Railways. A YP #2511 made by Telco in 1963.

DevaRaja Market

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We loved it here. It’s everything you expect India to be. It’s hot, colourful, stinky, hassly, smiley, cheap and full of thousands of market sales people who I can only assume are permanently on a task for The Apprentice. This is where you will learn a few new skills. One is being able to ignore everything and everyone as if you were walking alone on a barren and deserted salt lake. But before you learn this you have to learn firstly never to look, stop and especially touch any item on any stall ever because this essentially means you will buy it even if it’s only as a pay off.

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After this you go through learning a bit of quid pro quo banter, before learning really and truly how to say NO before then reaching the salt lake stage and lastly the next time you’re in the vicinity, you learn to avoid the market.

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But if you love all of that then this is India’s very best market apparently. And to be honest we went there every day. It was trippy and life affirming. We bought about 200 incense sticks for no more than 50p and a brass inlaid wooden incense box for £1.

Green Hotel and the Malgudi Cafe
This was our Mysorean sanctuary. We didn’t stay here but we did visit several time to eat the glorious food and drink the greatest coffee in its renowned and controversial cafe – a cafe that once made the world’s press as the cafe is staffed by ‘untouchables’ – see http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/apr/06/dalit-girls-waitress-caste-taboo

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Employing these ‘untouchables’  is still frowned upon to this day but the ones serving and cooking in that cafe have the warmest and loveliest smiles you may ever see. And the hotel it belongs to has been set up as a model of sustainable tourism and ALL of its profits go to charitable and environmental project in India.

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Chamundi Hills
We took a bus to the top of the main hill where the astonishing Chamundeshwari Temple is situated at 3489 feet. We wandered around choosing not to join the thongs queuing to go into the temple. We had been in a few that week already and you simply don’t have enough years in your life to go into every Indian temple. We then walked down back to Mysore, down 1000 steps built by Dodda Devaraja Wodeyar in 1659 who at the same time, at 300 steps down, also built a huge Nandi, Lord Shiva’s Bull.
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This Nandi is one of the largest in India standing 16 ft. (4.8 meters) tall at the head and 25 ft. (7.5 meters) in length and it’s one of the largest carvings from a single piece of rock, granite no less.

On our journey down these teenagers stole my shades but taking their photo got them returnedAlong, with I think I recall, a few rupees.

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This is a great walk down and when nearing the foot of the hill you pass through a village where the children are not part of any begging ring but just want to crowd you and speak to you and laugh with you and point out the numerous monkeys that had now gathered all around us in a very Hitchcockian manner.

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And in Gandhi Square in Mysore centre there is a golden Gandhi
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Yoga Books

My qualification for this blog is that I’ve been practicing yoga for fifteen years, the last five of those being Ashtanga and also a dusting of Kundalini. I’ve been reading books associated with yoga for over twenty years and I thought I’d let everyone in on what I think are amongst the best books available on yoga *that I’ve read so far* and I would love to know what other yoga books people have read and been positively changed by.

My longest mention is firstly to Ram Dass. His books have been mind blowers to me. Born as Richard Alpert (curiously the name that the TV show Lost chose for one of its main characters) he became one of the leading professors of the Psychology department at Harvard in the 1960’s.  He was best friends with Timothy Leary and was at the forefront of LSD research that pretty much spawned the post Beatnik flower power movement that overtook the world (apart from some villages in Northern England who have yet to this day to be introduced to Bill Haley)

This LSD research got him famously thrown out of Harvard and after a time he wound up in India and found his ‘guru’, Neem Karoli Baba, became Ram Dass, which means servant of God, and at the same time realised that Psychology didn’t know much about the workings of the mind, which is quite something coming from a professor of Psychology at Harvard! His workshops and lectures since then are legendary and his book ‘Be Here Now’ is a classic. His writings and anecdotes are as laugh out loud funny as those of Bill Bryson, if Bryson did inner travels.

His latest book though is, for me, the ultimate biography/instruction manual on the reason we are here – which is to perform yoga. This doesn’t (necessarily) mean buying lycra and trendy mats and saying hello in a low misty voice, but the discipline of life, that is yoga. ‘Paths to God, Living the Bhagavad Gita’ has been called the greatest commentary ever written on the Gita and is an enlightening, humorous and very easily digested and highly recommended to all those beyond lycra 🙂

I came across the book ‘The 8 Limbs of Yoga, Pathway to Liberation’ by Bhava Ram in a second hand bookshop in Glastonbury, UK. Seeing the cover of an aging western hippy sat on a rock, somewhere warm, wearing a garland around his neck I very nearly put it back on the shelf but thought I’d read the back cover so I could be reinforced in my initial cynicism.

It stated that ‘Bhava Ram overcame a broken back, failed back surgery and stage four cancer through yoga’. Stage Four is to cancer what Category Five is to hurricanes – so I bought the book – and I’m very glad I did as the book is essentially a modern and western explanation of , as the title states, the eight limbs of yoga – which is Ashtanga yoga as written down 2200 years ago by Patanjali. If you’ve never read about the sutras and the whys and wherefores of yoga, this is a good place to start, though the book is not that easy to get hold of but worth the extra effort to find.

Mysore in India exists as the place to visit for western yoga enthusiasts and tens of thousands do visit each year. Indeed, for westerners, Mysore is to yoga as Goa is to hedonism.

This is thanks to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
who began practicing yoga at the age of 12 and at 15 ran away from home to study Sanskrit in Mysore. He eventually held a teaching position in yoga at the Sanskrit College of Maharaja becoming vidwan (professor) as well as being Honorary Professor of Yoga at the Government College of Indian Medicine. He is renowned for bringing ashtanga yoga to the west when he visited California in 1975.

He wrote just one book which is a book of his original teachings with photos showing all the postures of the ashtanga primary series and reading the book feels like one is reading history and all ashtanga practitioners today, in the west at least, have Jois and this book ‘Yoga Mala’ to thank.

I’m currently reading ‘Heaven Lies Within Us’ by Theos Bernard, an American who is allegedly the first westerner to go to India to study and practice yoga, back in the 1930’s, and from what I’ve read so far he delved more than most ever have since and the book is all about his travel and his delvings and is proving to be another must read for yogi’s. It has just been republished having been out of print for many years.

Although I’ve read many books that refer to the yoga book of books, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, I’ve never read the actual book itself.  I feel that I may have been leaving it to last, getting everybody else’s viewpoints and translations before going for my own – but now I have a copy and it will be accompanying me on an upcoming visit to India which includes a week in Mysore not doing any of that hedonistic stuff. 🙂