Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tiny Gifts and New Eyes

The moment I stepped into my Mysore apartment, I couldn't help but sigh. After long lines, long flights, and  long conversations I arrived, with only the clothes I was wearing, my mat and my carried-on supply of Counter Culture coffee (oh, and a little Sam James for good measure). It was a tough journey; I won't lie. However, turning the key in the lock and opening the door into the life that I have here brought only one thought to my mind: home.

Settling in for my third trip has been unexpectedly easy. Even though I arrived a bit earlier than my luggage, I had everything necessary to make myself comfortable straight away. Opening the trunk that I had stored in February was like discovering a treasure chest - clothes, towels, books, sheets. The kitchen was stocked and ready, the old internet stick tricked into giving me service for those first few hours. My landlady prepared and shared fresh dosa and sambar so that I wouldn't have to venture into town in the rainy weather. Everything I found, everything I saw, and everything I was offered was a tiny gift that made me feel as though I had never left.

While it has been nice to have a chance to slide right back into Mysore life, I am also grateful for the gift of new friends. Bright smiles and enthusiastic conversations offer me a fresh perspective on the things which I feel I know so well. In the past ten days I have explored new neighbourhoods, revisited old and favourite destinations, made exciting discoveries, and had a chance to take in my world with new eyes. It's a lesson I've been taking into the shala with me. The first full week in the shala was incredible, and just like stepping across my apartment threshold, the familiarity of the practice made me feel comfortable. Linking up breath and movement in a way that I've done so many times over makes me feel safe and grounded. It's a feeling I linger over and savour, but is also imbued with that same sense of curiosity. I can't wait to find all the tiny gifts, unwrap them and discover what they have to offer.

Dr. Seuss Tree

Monday, June 25, 2012

Just over one week ago I packed all my belongings into boxes, put my husband and dog in the car and after nine years moved from my home in Baltimore, Maryland to Greenwich, Connecticut. Though I am barely settled, tomorrow I will pack a few things into a small bag, kiss my husband and dog goodbye, and make my way to the airport to begin the thirty-hour journey that will take me to the reason I've turned my world upside down; for the next two months I will study Ashtanga yoga at the source in Mysore, India. This will be my third trip in as many years to the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute. With each visit and each day spent studying under the careful observation of my teacher, R. Sharath Jois, Ashtanga has become further ingrained into every aspect of my life. A teacher once told me "first Ashtanga changes your body, then your mind, then your heart." I have seen these changes firsthand and as a result, have become increasingly connected to the lineage and tradition of Asthanga, and to the work it requires both on and off the mat. The practice offers me a keen sense of awareness of the world, and insight and perspective about my role in it. After my first and second Mysore trips, I arrived home to Baltimore burning with the fire of intense practice with teacher and community. However, it is difficult to maintain that type of energy when going it alone. The fire tends to wane. As a result, I have felt compelled make unorthodox choices in order to prioritize Ashtanga in my life. Although change is rarely easy, the recognizable benefits of the practice, and the joy and devotion I feel for it, have inspired the support of my husband, family, and friends in my desire to be a student, even if it requires sacrifice. I am excited that tomorrow I will once again be afforded the chance to go to learn from a guru who has so greatly impacted my life and the lives of many others. I relish the time spent in Mysore where I can rebuild and reignite the fire of my practice. However, this time I am also filled with anticipation for my return. I know that I will come home to a thriving Ashtanga community who will help to breathe life into the embers if that fire grows dim, to a teacher who will continue to tend and stoke the flames with a balance of discipline and compassion, and to a place whose commitment and dedication to teaching this method will keep the agni burning strong, even through a cold and snowy Connecticut winter.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Wish List

I've made a wish list. It's a compilation of the things I'd like to do and accomplish before I leave Mysore next week. There are things on my wish list that are not surprising, like making a final trip to Mylari, the site of B.'s infamous 12-dosa morning, for a rich and buttery breakfast. And then there are things on my list which are a little less conventional, but important nonetheless like finishing the third season of Deadwood with my housemates.

In the process of choosing which places and adventures would help complete my four month journey, I came to something I've been meaning to do, but avoided since about three or four weeks in. I want to learn to drive a scooter. Sort of. Most of me wants to learn, but there's that tiny part that is jumping up and down, arms waving, yelling "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!"

Fear is there.

However, if there's something to be learned from practicing Ashtanga, here or at home, it's that you have to work through the scare-factor. So, with the help of my two Mysore besties, yesterday was the day. We went down to a quiet, flat road only a few blocks from my apartment. This road, or at least part of it, is fairly devoid of potholes, which is a miracle in itself (hopefully attracting more miracles), and therefore became a safe place for me to take my first scooter-steps. While one of my friends showed me the ins and outs of starting, accelerating and braking, the other stood at the side of the road keeping a careful eye. Let me say now that both of them are experienced and accomplished scooter operators, and so I knew I was in good hands. Intimidating hands (fearing again). Caring hands. The confidence they both had in my ability to actually do this, without wrecking the scooter, or myself, spurred me forward in my venture.

The first few movements were heart-pounding. The controls seemed sensitive, the scooter heavy, the steering impossible. There were cows and water-buffalo in the road - horned Indian driving bogeys rounding every corner. The constant encouragement from my trusted teacher was the only thing keeping me from total freak out. Steady in both voice and demeanor, my perfectly calm driving instructor helped me get my bearings and allay my fear. My right hand gave the gas, my left poised, ready to brake. Suddenly though, I was pulling my feet in, travelling (slowly) down the road, and staying upright. What?? I even managed to dodge the aforementioned livestock, a pedestrian, and another scooter. Success! At least in terms of driving in a straight line. When I was done, my rewards of smiles and "good job" resonated, reminding me a little of receiving a nod from Sharath after working a challenging asana.

"Anna - what you do?"
"Drive in a straight line..."
"Mmmm. Tomorrow, turning you take."

Tomorrow I take.
No fearing. Remind me to add that to my wish list. :)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Getting Ready

The time is quickly approaching. In 10 days I'll make my way to the airport in Bangalore, board a plane to Paris, eat a croissant, board another plane, this time to DC, and arrive...


It's a big word to me, maybe larger than it's ever been before.

When B. and I first moved from Hamilton to Baltimore we spent days, months, perhaps even years, referring to the places we grew up as home. Even now, nearly 9 years later, I sometimes find myself referring to Lindsay, Toronto or Hamilton as home, despite the fact that the houses, friends, and family members that surrounded me when I lived there have moved on.

For the past four months, Mysore has been my home. It's been the place where I have eaten and slept (or not slept) and cried. It's the place where I've felt lonely and scared and the place where I've felt loved and comforted. It's the place where I've been discovering myself, planning my future, living my life. As I prepare to pack up, putting away things for my next visit, I have to admit I'm a little sad. The people that I've become close to and the weeks I've spent here have profoundly impacted me and I know that when I return to the U.S. I won't be the same person I was when I left. But I also know that it's time. Part of making these trips is the leaving - the going home - in a sense it's just as important as coming in the first place. Going home forces you to delve deep into what Sharath calls the four D's - devotion, dedication, discipline and determination. Can you allow this practice to be similarly transformative when you're faced with all the distractions of everyday life? Can you stay focused; maintain clarity of thought and purpose?

For some people the answer is no. And that's okay. For others, it's a definite yes.

I think, for me, there will be joy in the work to make this happen. I am preparing to meet this challenge head on, and believe that the pleasure of a community of friends, the comfort of familiar surroundings, and the loving encouragement of a supportive spouse are what will help to propel me forward when I arrive home. And I'm so looking forward to experiencing it.

It's bittersweet to approach the end of this journey. But we all have to leave here - we all have to go home. And it's the people, and the energy of the shala and the practice, that make this place feel like home. Luckily, I can take those things with me, at least in small part.

The rest is just geography.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Out of Sight, Out of Mind...

Today I register for my final month of practice. Only a couple of weeks ago I felt as if the end was so very far away, and now suddenly, I feel it looming, as if it's shadow is approaching and beginning to cover my toes in Samasthitih. Already, so many of the people that I care about, those who really help to make these trips as special as they are, have left. They've gone home, or continued on in their travels. As I sit in the lobby waiting to practice, their memories of Mysore are fading slightly, becoming filmy and grainy, turning into a blur of early mornings and bowls of rice. And my own memory of them becomes fuzzy around the edges, smudged by the days that continue on, the practice, and the focus.

This forgetting is inevitable, but it is also necessary. It's an important part of being able to go home and re-connect to our lives and families; it allows for re-entry into the real world. And the forgetting will be an integral part of returning; letting go of everything and everyone we love in order to return and fully immerse ourselves once again in practice here. The process is slow, and often painful, but little by little we detach - we have to, it's the only way we'll ever be able to do it again. And this is not to say that home or Mysore or the people in between are gone completely. It is the longing, not the loving, that subsides.

Goodbyes have always been hard for me and as I said my first few this week, I've tried not to think about the ones coming up that will be the most difficult. In this space, where we are so incredibly vulnerable, it is very easy to form fast friends and forge lifelong relationships. There are people here who I love as deeply as my own family, and leaving them will be incredibly challenging. But just as I always carry my practice, the energy of the shala, the love for my husband and family and home, these people too will be with me.

Sometimes we must put those who are not with us out of our minds as much as possible, but we know, and trust that they know, that they're always in our hearts.

Friday, January 6, 2012


I feel like I've been marinating. For the past two weeks I feel like I've been sitting in a vat of breath, and posture, sweat and gaze - throw in people, places and surprise news from home for a little extra spice. I feel raw; vulnerable; tender.

As I near the end of my third month in Mysore, my third month away from my creature comforts, family, and friends, things here are really starting to sink in. Deeply. They're beginning to colour the way I act in my everyday life and change the way that I respond to situations. I'm worried they're beginning to make me a little nutty. I'm regularly exhausted, my body aches and I feel like there's a lot going on inside my head, things that I am not even sure how to properly express.

Practicing Ashtanga is amazing and transformative, no matter where you unroll your mat. However, practicing here, working with intensity, determination and focus that I've never experienced anywhere else, changes the game entirely. Without distractions of work and home, without the stabilizing effects of routine and loved ones, India forces you to confront the aspects of yourself that you'd prefer to ignore. Suddenly everything that you hide away, the skeletons in the spiritual closet, are all exposed. You're gutted; your viscera laid out for the world to see.

It's horrifying. It's disgusting. It is utterly devastating.

But this mess is the impetus for change.

This is where the other parts of the practice begin.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Finding the Christmas Spirit

I think that many of the foreigners in Mysore would agree that without snow (if you're used to that sort of thing), and lights, and a constant barrage of holiday music emanating from the radio; without family all around and the smell of gingerbread or pine needles, it can be difficult to get into the Christmas (or Channukah or Kwanza) spirit. I know that Bart and I have found this to be true during the past week, hardly even realizing that Christmas eve was approaching before it was already upon us! So now, here we are on the day before Christmas, just returned from Bart's epic 12 dosa breakfast, and sitting in our living room with the front door wide open so we can listen to the breeze rustling the palm trees. It's a rough way to spend a morning, let me say. ;)

We know that being apart from family and friends for the holidays is a challenge. It brings up a lot of emotion for everyone, us included, and we wanted you to know that we have been thinking of all of you during these past few days. Though we are missing each other, I know that we all understand that this is only a temporary separation, and that we are all so lucky to have one another as constants in our lives. I know I speak for Bart as well, when I say that our lives would not be the same without you.

Usually, around this time, we're piling gifts under our tree and mailing off packages; or we're packing the car and the dog and heading out to visit all the people we love – off to see all of you. But since that isn't possible this year, we wanted to tell you what we have been doing to celebrate the season. Instead of gifts under the tree this year, which we would normally be wrapping right now, Bart and I decided that since we all have so much to be grateful for already, we wanted to take the opportunity that spending Christmas in India has offered us and share our resources. We decided to make a donation of the money that we would normally use for presents and paper and all the other Christmas goodies and offer it to a local organization where we felt it could be well used. After speaking to some other yoga students and knowledgeable friends, our organization of choice was Odanadi, an operation founded in Mysore that rescues and houses children who are being, or are at high risk of being, trafficked for either underage slave labour or sexual exploitation. This practice is still in full throttle in countries like India, and though Odanadi generally deals only with human trafficking cases that take place in the state of Karnataka, it currently houses about 70 girls and 12 boys. The goal of Odanadi is to provide refuge for these children so that they can begin to recover from the trauma they've experienced and prepare to be reintegrated into society as productive adults. Odanadi works to not only ensure that these children have adequate food, shelter and clothing, but also helps them to learn life skills as well as receive an education. They've had several college graduates including a lawyer and a state politician who now works to help stop these types of crimes against humanity.

We truly feel that Odanadi is deserving of any help we can provide and so that is why we decided to make our donation to them. In addition, we've been able to go there several times, interact with the staff and children and generally see how the operation works. It's so wonderful to have the chance to see how these kids are directly benefiting from the work of the organization, and to be able to have a hands on role in that work! We've participated in a Mehndi Magic afternoon where we were given henna tattoos and just yesterday we spent the evening making Christmas decorations with the children. They have so much fun with these types of activities – and so do we!!

It's so important to both Bart and I to try to keep in mind how fortunate we are – how much bounty we have, both in terms of our home and belongings and the people who fill our lives – and when we see how far a single dollar can go in India, we know that this money can really make a difference for these kids. In fact, we've been told that our donation will go directly to building a better home for the boys rescued by Odanadi, as they currently have to be housed in small huts due to lack of resources. Based on what one of the founders told us, the money that we've donated could be used to by the concrete for the entire home twice over. AMAZING!!!

Though we physically made this donation, the gratitude and credit here is really due to all of you for your willingness to support us in making it happen. We hope that as you read this blog post and look at the photos of all the kids you're helping that it will be just as exciting as any gift we could have gotten you. We hope that you will see the joy, the sweetness, and the potential that we've been able to see first hand in these kids, and we hope that their bright and beautiful smiles will warm your hearts, no matter the weather outside.

Merry Christmas and much love to all of you. Thank you so much for your part in making this possible.