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A Mysore experience

As Patthabi Jois assures his students, “Do your practice and all is coming.” Now if that isn’t salvation!

With this message in mind, I arrived in Mysore. A few days into my stay, I knew that salvation was certainly not what I was in for. Let me start by describing our daily practice. To arrive at Patthabi’s at 4:30 in the morning, I had to rise just before 4. The cycle ride to the little school was eerie and sometimes downright dangerous. This is not so much because the only humans awake at that time were the insane and a few beggars, but it was the stray dogs that for some reason seemed to have conspired into attacking me when no one was looking. Once there, still half asleep and at my most vulnerable, I’d step into an unfriendly and highly competitive atmosphere. A bunch of agile bodies packed tightly into a small space, topped by very serious faces. Though you would invariably find yourself making contact with your neighbour’s outstretched limbs, no eyes ever met. This was quite a tricky matter. Apart from the walls, the moth-eaten remnants of a woven carpet were definitely not something you wanted to focus on too closely, lest the sight of bugs, dirt and the occasional toe nail stopped you from bringing your forehead to the ground in upavishta konasana (forward bend with legs spread apart). The atmosphere was dominated by the harsh sound of collective Ujayi breathing (a form of breath control, meant to channel the prana or life-force, thereby increasing one’s power). If you were lucky Patthabi Jois clad in black Calvin Klein underwear would occasionally come and adjust you, but most of the time it would be grandson Sharath. Personally I much preferred the old man’s magic touch, as Sharath would emit a kind of sniggering cackle when someone lost their balance or in some other way failed to live up to expectation. Guruji, though he had quite a temper and would often shout and humiliate latecomers, seemed to have more empathy and patience. Unfortunately, many mornings he could be seen dozing off on his stool in the corner.

Despite feeling disappointed that I had come all this way, was paying about three times what I paid in London (which in Indian terms is an absolute fortune), just to receive a lot less teaching than back home – all this would not have been so bad, were it not for the other students. What so repelled me was the students’ humourless self-righteousness, their boy-scout behaviour, a total lack of creativity in their approach to the yoga practice and the blind willingness to suspend all critical faculties. They seemed to be in Mysore for one reason only and that was to take what they learnt back home with them. The majority of them made their living teaching yoga, though they were embarrassed to admit this in front of the great master. Many never even ventured further than Lakshmipuram, where Patthabi’s school was located. Lakshmipuram is a distinctly Brahmin (highest caste) neighbourhood. It is vaguely the equivalent of judging London by a few months spent solely in Chelsea or Holland Park. Furthermore, the students, many of whom stayed for months on end or even settled in Mysore, were unfriendly to newcomers, overtly cliquey, and utterly boring and miserable. Sometimes I’d look around at the frowning faces and just could not believe how much misery the yoga seemed to be causing. This did not restrict itself to the mental state either. Many had minor injuries or pains. Whilst I was struggling with a typical case of traveller’s diarrhoea, to my utter surprise I found that the most common problem my fellow Ashtangis were complaining about was constipation. Most of them displayed such anal-retentive behaviour, that I could only conclude it would take more than yoga’s curative powers to release the blockage.

There is one count on which I still feel I should defend Patthabi Jois. There seemed to be a quiet consensus in Mysore that Guruji was what we would refer to as “a bit of a letch”. Apparently, adjustments were even more rare for men than for women, and that was because he liked touching women, especially certain parts. I believe that this accusation of “groping” reveals more about the accuser’s narrow-minded sexual hang-ups and obsessions than anything else. It is true that he touches people’s bums rather a lot, thus gently pointing out the Mula bandha (=perineum lock) in a way more direct than one might be accustomed to. This man is 87 and has seen sweaty Western women twist and turn and heave their weight around day in/day out for decades. I think that if anything it shows that he is a true yogi and teacher that he has no second thought about bringing awareness to the bandhas in such a direct way. How could anyone seriously believe that an 85-year old rich Indian Brahman would get turned on by touching the sweaty anuses of white women - and men?

On a more down-to-earth note, the bottom is also the most convenient part of the body to grab, when adjusting. Patthabi is 86 and teaches from 4:30 to 8 o'clock in the morning, non-stop 6 days a week. Many of his students, including the female ones are taller than him.
The fact is that a lot of them (both female and male students, gay or otherwise) get the yoga and their sense of sexuality and other psychological garbage completely mixed up. So many have it written all over their faces, that Guruji is their Ersatz daddy, boyfriend, patriarchal protector and healer. They treat him like a cross between a favourite teddy bear and godhead. They jump at any excuse to drop down to the ground in front of him, kissing his feet, then a big hug, kiss on the mouth (!) and cheeks.

Thus went my thoughts and observations at the time. Faced with what struck me as absurd behaviour, I turned the other way. I’d befriended a Greek Canadian Zen Buddhist called Eric, who ran a wood marqueterie workshop in Mysore, Maria the unpredictable Austrian 42-year old hippy, and Hilde, a Scottish girl who turned out to be the distant cousin of my teacher in London. We were all staying at the notorious Kaveri Lodge. This is where the poorer yogis reside. Most of Patthabi’s more affluent students were to be found in the Southern Star, which has air-conditioning, clean towels and free mints and was the kind of character-less concrete bunker of a hotel, the likes of which one can find in just about any city in the world. We only ever sneaked in to use the pool.

Eric knew Patthabi’s reputation with the locals, who could not believe the money he was charging. Maria and Hilde refused to pay Patthabi’s prices, and practised with another teacher (who incidentally raised his prices just before I left). Maria’s was a classic case. She had been one of Patthabi’s early students, but now she just could no longer afford him. Guruji offers no concessions. And if you do not pay him on time, he won’t stop short of confronting you with the matter in the middle of your practice. Even the Americans thought this “a bit weird”.

I spent many hours drinking sweet, milky chai in one of our rooms, or watching the sunset from the roof of Kaveri Lodge, as the chants from a distant mosque announced the end of another glorious day. For the rest of the time, I stuck to a routine of reading and writing, eating, shopping, catching up on sleep and of course attending Conference, when all Patthabi’s students congregated in the small front room of the school, at the feet of their great guru. The problem was that their teacher took hardly any notice of them and used this time to catch up on international matters, reading all manner of newspaper and only begrudgingly answering their tedious questions. So, most of the time, we talked amongst ourselves, which considering the wit of the average Ashtangi was a total waste of time.

By now you are probably thinking, well if that Patthabi guy is just an old, fat money-hungry Indian snob, then how in the world could he enjoy such fame? Spiritual matters are never this simple. Patthabi Jois is the Indian yogic equivalent of Marlon Brando. He is hugely charismatic, whilst often acting in a manner that is totally out of order. He gets away with it because of an intoxicating combination of the naiv and all-knowing. The latter is helped by his favourable name that sounds a bit like Pattanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras over 2,000 years ago.

Though most of the time Guruji doesn’t appear to make a great effort in answering his students’ questions, once in a while, he will utter brief exclamations of such enlightened beauty, one felt one had to catch and remember them like falling stars.
I once asked him: ‘If you had to translate Yoga into one word only, which one would you chose?’
"Not possible! Yoga has many meanings." (Yes, I knew that.)
He thinks. "There are 5 main meanings." He hesitates and then only gives one.
He raises one hand. "If this is separate and this is separate," he raises the other, on which he wears his chunky gold rings. "Like this is yoga." His wonderful hands are brought together in prayer position.
Patthabi behaves like a child, whilst exuding the wisdom of a great sage. He can be serious and stupid at the same time, hard and soft, genuine and false. Sometimes you think he is a twisted old senile, at other times you are convinced he really is that omniscient, benevolent Yogi you were looking for, and he’s got something really amazing to give you.

Though I ended up enjoying my time in Mysore thanks mainly to my friends at the Kaveri, I was relieved to see the back of this city. Especially as I was heading south to Kerala and its lovely beaches. But I didn’t shed all thoughts of yoga. Quite the contrary. If there is one thing that I got out of my Mysore sessions, it was the longing to practice on my own. To experiment and internalise what I’d learnt. This had never been such a strong urge, possibly because I had previously practised in classes I felt comfortable. As a result of the disillusionment and disappointment I’d experienced, my soul in a sense was challenged to let me know what it is truly looking for in this strange thing called yoga.

Lara Baumann, February 2000.

Lara spent the early years of her childhood in India, then completed an MA in Religious Studies in London.