Ashtanga Yoga + Paradigm Shifts
Photos of all my beloved teachers (both formal and informal ones 🙃) at our closing fire pooja ceremony. Plus the Cauvery River spot.
Before my month as Samyak, it was easy to say amidst my laundry list of hopes and dreams for my radical sabbatical that I was going to go to Ashtanga Yoga training, its true weight loosing meaning in my repetitive dispatch of my travel plans to friends and family.
But at the initiation ceremony at Samyak the first evening, while taking an “oath” to myself to stay true to my intentions for the month, I realized that signing up and paying the tuition was the easy part.
Every day was full - there wasn’t any time for doubts or wandering thinking. I was too occupied with intimately being in a new environment with new faces, performing a rigorous physical practice, learning to count in Sanskrit, and absorbing yogic philosophy that ruptures one’s assumptions so fundamentally - its as if you’re shedding the weight of a lifetime of American cultural constructs and layers of inherited ancestral ways of knowing.
The month demanded an acknowledgment of the limitations of my own knowledge. I had to admit what I don’t know, emptying my cup, accepting my own ignorance. This process of unlearning can feel like you’re broken apart, stepping backward in progress toward understanding the mystical reason for being. Although in a sense this “emptiness” was not an absence of knowledge rather the opportunity to start prioritizing or discerning between what knowledge to take or leave.
As I said, every day was so full, it required full presence to absorb everything. Days mostly started with waking up at 5:30am, two hours of ashtanga primary series, breakfast, yoga philosophy, asana clinic (breaking down the adjustments/alignments for each asana), lunch, an afternoon break, then afternoon practice or a teaching clinic, pranayama/meditation, dinner and then lights out. Repeat. Six days a week, for four weeks. The schedule and all the content made it so that having little distractions was necessary.
Samyak is located outside of Mysore, on the Cauvery river at a place called “Cauvery Sannidhi,” meaning “divine presence of the River Cauvery.” It is surrounded by palm groves, paddy fields, sugar cane and mango and jackfruit trees. Troupes of playful monkeys, wondering butterflies and a host of vibrant birds also call the ashram home. Samyak also shares its campus with a girl’s gokulum, a traditional way of learning in which young students live with their teachers and learn intimately about a yogic way of life, the Vedas, and Sanskrit, it’s essentially a yogic monastery for girls.
Our teachers, Yogacharya Arvind and Yogacharya Rakesh also learned in this way, going to study ancient yogic wisdom when they were pre-teens. They went on to both receive Bachelors and Masters in Yogic Science. They have developed a teaching style that accommodates Western notions of understanding - using humor and relatable storytelling to drive home concepts. Arvind once used the analogy of a pet dog named Barney to refer to how we indulge our mind/ego (dog) with sense pleasures (treats) and that the process of training our mind with deep concentration is a constant battle (lots of time in doggie disobedience class). They were very theatrical and experiential. Indulging in elaborate stories and visual displays to communicate aspects of the eight limbs of yoga. I seemed to always be writing notes with a smile and doodling in disbelief about how Arvind managed to connect humor to even the most esoteric concepts.
Being in an environment of learning again, studying something I’m profoundly interested in with other genuinely enthusiastic people that want to share ideas and simply gather knowledge with the intention to better themselves, seems to be a rare spot to land in life. The deep connections made here were profound because they felt pure and unforced. We all gravitated this place as a result of an unspoken common drive, something that surpassed language and culture. We were collectively from the U.S., France, Argentina, Spain, Brazil, Israel, and India. I never felt so at ease with sixteen strangers. Even if I didn’t have a deep conversation with someone as a result of a language barrier, I felt a strong warmness and unconditionality from everyone. You know that feeling when you walk into a room of friends or family and have complete comfort and at-homeness? Sit by anyone and feel that you’re welcomed and appreciated? This was the collective energy we were able to create at Samyak.
This training has created an opportunity for a complete paradigm shift in how I navigate my life. For the last couple years, I’ve leaned into exploring what drives me, what my intentions are and like any good spiritual inquiry - positing the question of the meaning of life and death and deep curiosity about the secrets of the universe. Taking 2018 off of the culturally-conditioned responsibilities of modern life, to pause, learn and re-evaluate has already proven to be the right thing at this moment. The universe conspires to present you with what you need, yet we have to relearn to be aware of its signs. During even my second day at training, I knew that I could return home after that month having grown and been jump-started on a new path, knowing that it was it was a mix of my own choices and mostly an auspicious conspiracy bringing together the perfect teachers, the perfect group of individuals, in the perfect place.
Our teachers refer to gaining knowledge as something to be respected, taking or leaving what works for you. In this training we were exposed to ancient knowledge that could often be out of our scope of understanding. We were encouraged to develop a “refrigerator” - perhaps the information we were absorbing didn’t resonate now in this moment but maybe visiting it later in life it may be a valuable insight. I have been gathering for a long time and from many places, and I have been keen on stepping onto a path in earnest with discipline for awhile. It’s easy to read books and intellectualize spiritual ideas, as Westerners we are built for this intellectual approach. But to see profound progress on the path to oneness or freedom from illusion or enlightenment or understanding the secrets of the universe, however you want to frame it, we need to practice. To have discipline enough to stick to something, whatever we choose. We were told again and again that yoga is a way of life, god can be seen as anything that makes you hold reverence, whatever arises a sense of sacred in you, whether it is the ocean or nature in general, an enlightened being, the idea of god is very personal. There are no set rules, the eight limbs of yoga simply provides a wholistic set of guidelines to navigate life and death.
Everything starts with self-study. Make an attempt to honestly understand yourself, learn what your capabilities and limitations are, and structure your life around this. If we base our life on our likes and dislikes, those are constantly changing and we are merely attempting to satisfy our ego and its disillusioned desires. If we only seek a life of comfort, avoiding difficult conversations and our responsibilities, lacking discipline etc., we will stay in a cyclical pattern of suffering and illusion to the true nature of reality.
Pausing for meaningful self-inquiry and using the eight limbs for guidance is my current focus. I feel a sense of relief having some ancient wisdom and intensive experiential practice to refer back to throughout life, because with all information and spiritual paths to choose from in the world it’s easy to get lost in the noise. I now have cultivated the skills to lead a yoga class, it wasn’t my main intention for attending this training but it feels like a valuable gift to share with others. A skill to continue to cultivate maybe to simply expose people so they can start their own path of self-inquiry. I’m leaving this place inspired, determined, and eager to move forward with one-pointed focus, with an open-heart and eager mind.
A huge explosion of gratitude to Yogacharya Arvind, Yogacharya Rakesh, my beloved fellow students, and the Samyak family - thank you all for contributing to this collective paradigm shift.