Sunday, December 4, 2011

In Mysore: Thoughts on Faith and Family

I have vivid dreams here, in India: fragments of life in the States, images of early childhood and my parents. My thoughts of my mother and family always come up more strongly here, perhaps because at the heart of it, Ashtanga has been taught from the get go as a house-holder’s rather than a renunciate’s practice. Ashtanga students who travel to Mysore don’t go to an ashram: they simply practice in the morning and then fill the day as they wish.
“There are fewer obstacles [to practice] if you don’t have a family,” Sharath Rangaswamy said during conference yesterday, “Fewer attachments.” But flanked by his two children, who love to come sit on their father’s lap, or interrupt him altogether, as he addresses the 200 or so assembled students, it was clear he was hardly endorsing letting go of it all.
Nonetheless, the Ashtanga community is a global tribe unto it’s own. And the practice and community have certainly filled the role of family for me many times, especially early on: I began practice shortly after a divorce, the same year my dad grew ill. I first practiced with Sri Pattabhi Jois six weeks after my dad passed away, and the lessons learned on my first trip to India in 2004 helped me deal with my mother’s death a few short months after I returned to the States.
My mother tried yoga, albeit not Ashtanga, a year or two before she died. She didn’t continue. “It wasn’t what I thought it would be,” she told me. I remember my disappointment at hearing this, but I knew what she meant. Yoga practice is confrontative. There’s simply no avoiding yourself, your positive attributes as well as your delusions, your conditioned attitudes and your internal walls. When I first started, I would often get stuck, frozen with dread, my breathing coming to a near standstill, in certain poses. “Oh there’s that place,” my first teacher would say. And with his encouragement, I would eventually move past that state and complete my practice. Years later, I still encounter that internal wall, albeit in different ways, complete with its mirror image played out in other areas in my life.
The fact that my mom just stopped the bit of yoga she tried has pained me as much as the fact of her absence. And so lacking living parents with whom to seek solace or counsel when I feel stuck, I turn to my practice and, if possible, I find a way to return to India.
Last year, my boyfriend, who I was barely calling that at the time, met me here at the end of my Mysore trip. We spent a day in Gokulam before going to Goa, and I remember how scared I was of him being in this place that has been a haven as much as an educational ground.
“That’s like meeting the parents,” another student said and I had to agree, this community of yogis having so often played, knowingly or no, surrogate family.
Of course, there’s nothing like your real family, and I think that’s why my thoughts of my mom come up so strongly here. At conference, as Sharath’s children repeatedly interrupted his lecture by vying for his and we student’s attention, I found it as instructive to watch Sharath’s mix of unconditional love, tolerance and irritation as listen to his discussion of yoga, obstacles to practice and kriyas. Yoga in this tradition clearly means having a life, a family and fulfilling your duties as much as practicing asana. And the faith inherent to completing your practices is the same faith you place in your life.

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