Yoga in India

A close French friend of mine recently took the plunge, and started giving beginner’s yoga classes. After three years of solid daily practice, and three months spent here in Mysore, during which she practised twice daily and also completed a teachers’ training course, I feel she is eminently qualified, and since she possesses numerous other qualities useful for teaching, I was thrilled and happy for her. Surprisingly, one of her friends, with whom she goes back a long way, was less enthusiastic, even telling her it was outrageous to start teaching when she had spent “only three months in India”. The friend in question is the sister of a well-established ashtanga teacher in the same area, so regrettably it is clear unfortunate territorial politics are at work here. I’m also sure most teachers wouldn’t dismiss a teaching candidate as inexperienced simply because they had not spent long, or indeed even any time, in India.

I would suggest there may be three main criteria that should be met by a yoga teacher: a regular personal practice, that has been ongoing for long enough to allow the person to have an understanding of what they aim to teach; regular contact with their own teacher; knowledge of how to teach safely, and adapt postures to individual students. Needless to say, all of this can be done outside India, indeed the largest (to my knowledge) yoga shala abroad is that of Petri Räisänen, located in Helsinki, and it’s hard to think of a geographically more different place than that.

But I’ve noticed that the opposite phenomenon, thinking one has become special thanks to a stint learning and practising yoga in India, is less uncommon, and can often creep in quite subtly. I’ve already mentioned “Tanya” and her self-proclaimed initiation into Patanjali’s sutras. And as the poet Cavafy points out, “No ship exists to take you away from yourself.” Just because we have been mellow and centered for a few weeks or months in Mysore, doesn’t mean our old patterns won’t be back with a vengeance when we return to our former lives and responsibilities. While we hopefully take home some of the benefits of a sojourn here, as soon as an experience has passed, it is, for better or for worse, irremediably gone, no longer anything more than lingering memory, and the ever-renewed present requires our attention.

Most would I agree, I think, that anything that reinforces a special sense of self, or even simply cultivates a projected self-image, is contrary to the spirit and goals of yoga. Certainly a period in India can facilitate change, and that is one of the aims of a journey here. But we might be well advised not to become attached to any sense of progress, of having become wiser, more insightful, or of having gained or deepened desirable qualities. Nor should we think any changes are permanent and acquired once and for all, however transformed we may feel. Buddhism explains the concept of conditioned arising, which, put in its simplest terms, means that things happen when the conditions for those things to manifest are present. And here, in the gentle, slow environment of India, we lead remarkably sheltered lives, there is little to push our buttons, we are residents of what one might call (if I may be permitted to adapt a Japanese expression), a floating world.

So why come to India for yoga in the first place, then? It’s true that the simple act of coming to India is a chance to take a break from our habitual lives, to create time and space to focus solely on yoga. Many of us come not only to learn from our teachers, but to practise more intensely. It’s also true that in some places, like Mysore, there is an extraordinary concentration of extremely good teachers in a small area. And tuition fees here are Indian, making daily classes far more accessible, even with a limited budget. Moving in yoga circles, it’s pleasant to be among people from all over the world who have come here with similar intent, and I can think of few other circumstances that would bring together so many people of different nationalities, ages and backgrounds for a shared purpose.

But for me, what time in India offers, that I could perhaps not find elsewhere, is the space and environment to truly immerse myself in yoga. The climate helps of course, the body is more open in this tropical warmth. And intensive practice under the watchful eye of the teacher and guide accelerates progress without a doubt. But ultimately there are, I feel, no shortcuts, and one thing that cannot be speeded up is the time it takes to integrate what is learned. Favourable conditions for this integration, however, can be created. Here in Mysore, with no other concerns, having put the rest of my life on hold, and with body and mind kneaded by mild asceticism, one’s whole being seems to soak things up like a sponge. But what is absorbed only truly becomes a part of us gradually. My daily yoga practice is still too recent to speak about long-term effects, but I have experienced the benefits of time when learning other things – for example, I gained a degree in a foreign language, and after four years, of which one spent studying abroad, I had achieved a fairly advanced level of spoken and written fluency. Now, fifteen years on, further progress has been less noticeable, but the language is immeasurably more a part of me, simply from having kept company with it for all these years. I suspect the same goes for yoga.

My first Zen teacher (a disciple of Taisen Deshimaru), once rightly pointed out that a true master is not someone who gives you something, but on the contrary, someone who helps you get rid of unnecessary baggage. I would like to think that here in India, even while acquiring greater knowledge of yoga, that is what I am doing.

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