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All the right moves

Yoga bliss in India

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MYSORE, India -- Mysore-style yoga is no ordinary ashtanga class. Teacher Ajay Kumar, who began practising at 10, seems intimidating to the first-time student, until his witty humour surfaces. The authoritative 25-year-old gives one student 15 minutes of squatting homework and adjusts another one to the point of tears. Then his eyes turn toward me. Uh oh.

"Is that a downward dog?" he barks. "That's not a downward dog." The uber-fit yoga master yanks my hips toward the ceiling and leans into my back with all of his weight. "Relax," he says, tapping my shoulders. "Soften."

It's kind of difficult, with the yoga teacher on my back. I do relax and focus my breath.

Then I feel it. I discover the downward dog, despite years of practice.

Welcome to Mysore-style yoga. This is the real deal, in the Indian city that gave birth to the father of the Ashtanga system of yoga, Pattabhi Jois, who continued to teach into his 90s.

Sadly, Jois died the week I arrived in Mysore, casting a pall of mourning over this city of one million people. Within days, yogis from around the world descended upon Mysore, to pay their final respects.

His studio, The Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, will continue to operate with classes taught by his daughter Saraswathi Rangaswamy and his grandson Sharath. It is now located in the tiny neighbourhood of Gokulam, and is one of the more popular shalas among westerners who come to Mysore to study.

The shala certifies and targets western yoga teachers, who come for a maximum of six-week training courses. Ajay's shala, Sthalam 8, is more geared for westerners who move to India and want to study yoga over a longer period of time. He demands a minimum of one month commitment, but makes an exception for me and allows several drop-in classes.

By the end of the week, I begin to see a pattern. Mysore the city, and Mysore-style of yoga, to the casual observer, both seem incredibly chaotic. Once one gets accustomed, however, a rhythm begins to emerge and the order in the chaos becomes clear.

I learn more from Ajay in one class than in years of study from teachers in Halifax, Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver.

Ajay is a true yogi, who studies Sanskrit and practises in the middle of the night, saluting the sun as it rises. It's this sort of authenticity one finds in Mysore. He is hands-on (perhaps too much so for some people's comfort level) and goes deep into the practice. He gets to know his students and their bodies, in an intimate but non-sexual kind of way.

Sandrine Guiuliano, a 41-year-old woman from France, is a typical Mysore tourist. She quit her job as an accountant and moved to India to find herself earlier this year. Instead, she found yoga, and decided to come to Mysore. She is at Ajay's studio on this particular day, signing up for classes.

"When you arrive at 40, you look behind you and realize you haven't done so much," she tells me. "You're still looking for joy and happiness. I discovered yoga is linked to the mind. It is not just physical work."

It's the spiritual aspect of yoga in India that differentiates it from the way it is usually practised in North America. In Canada, the focus seems to be on exercise, looking hot in workout attire, and getting distracted by the badly manicured toes on the mat next to you. There are no mirrors on the shala walls in Mysore.

Kumar says western yoga focuses only on "one limb," the postures. Eastern yoga is about practising "all eight limbs at the same time." It's about focus, postures and breath. If you're not breathing properly, you are wasting your time with yoga.

"In yoga, your mind needs to be present," Kumar says. "You go deep inside of you. If you only do asanas (postures), you always need to look at what the next person is doing and compete."

Another major difference is time of day when it is practised. Yoga is meant to be the first thing one does upon waking, before eating or drinking.

The shala only offers morning classes, beginning at 6 a.m.

"Fresh mind, fresh body, before any toxins go in or you speak bad words. That's when the sun rises. That's when you do the sun salutation. The sun doesn't come in the afternoon. If it did, you would do it in the afternoon."

There's a saying in this enchanting Indian city, famous for its silk, sandalwood and now yoga: You don't experience yoga until you practise with the great Pattabhi Jois or one of his certified teachers.

I still can't jump through to chaturanga. But having now been to Mysore, I can say, I have experienced yoga bliss.

-- Canwest News Service




Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 21, 2009 E4

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