Mysore. What a bore. Well not the yoga, but the time in between practices. Mysore is a dry, dusty, hot little city filled with friendly Indians and sweaty yogis. It is famous for its silk, its palaces, and Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga yoga — the reason that I and thousand other foreigners come here each year. Aside from yoga, it is a great place to practice the art of doing nothing, because basically there is nothing to do.
When I arrived in Mysore, I was immediately charmed by the broad, tree-lined streets, the relative calm of the city center, and, of course, by my beautiful blue-walled room in an old home in a Brahmin suburb, Laxmipurum to be exact. Somewhat ambitiously I decided to stay three weeks and really delve into my Ashtanga practice with a certain Mr. Chidananda at Mysore Mandala. Three weeks is short compared to the months the real die-hard Ashtanagis spend here each year, sweating it out at “The Shala,” as the Pattabhi Jois institution, now run by his grandson, is referred to.
Mysore Mandala is much the opposite: cheap, noncommittal, and unpretentious, which is why I like it. What I don’t like is the 14 hours between practice and sleep and what my mind does to me.
As temperatures near 100 degrees with 90 percent humidity, the foreigners are clearing town, and a lot of the fun goes out the door with them. Not that studying yoga is supposed to be “fun,” of course; yogis tend to give me a dirty look when I suggest having fun with it. But honestly, it is not the yoga that’s hard; it is, as I mentioned, the unstructured time in between.
Mysore is great place to study: you can not only do yoga but chant, learn Sanskrit, pick up a religion or two, take cooking classes, basically immerse oneself in everything that Westerners love about Indian culture. The only problem with the end of the season is that a lot of these interesting and enriching activities shut down, leaving a certain yogini with way too much free time on her mind. So what’s a yogini to do in Mysore between practices? Here are a few things that I have found myself doing, aside from of course trying to not do but just be in the present moment, something Indians seem to have perfected and most Westerners can only ever dream of doing.
The Palace: a very impressive structure that offers an audio tour during the day and a beautiful light show at night. Total time out when combined with a meal: 5 hours.
The Hotel Regaalis Pool: Lovely outdoor pool with a bar, always good for breaking yogic purity and having some fun. It is possible to spend an entire day there provided you are willing to pay exorbitant prices for food and drinks. Total time spent out: 4-8 hours.
The Silk Shop: Now this is good for cheering a yogini’s spirits! Three floors of amazing fabrics, silks, chiffons, crepes, brocades, cottons, linens, etc. and beautiful Indian-style kurtas, salwar kameez, and saris for men and women. The best part is you can bring in a favorite piece of clothing and have it copied in silk or simply design your own. They also have quality pashminas. The prices are fixed and reasonable. Total time spent out: at least 3 hours.
Bombay Tiffanys: A Mysore classic full of all the sugariest, oiliest, densest, and most heart-stopping sweets imaginable. Try the Mysore Pak for a truly memorable experience. Although time spent in the shop is short, the effects linger on in the body and mind.
The Kishkindha Moolika Bonsai Garden: In the tranquil Sri Ganapathy Sachchidananda Ashrama, a lush medicinal herb and bonsai garden flourishes. Lots of miniature trees and a lotus pond. A perfect place to escape the heat and pollution of Mysore for a few hours.
Other options include reading (total books read in Mysore to date: 3), taking on a daily double practice (which I am considering), and venturing farther out into the environs of Mysore.
Of course the real challenge is just being happy not doing anything at all, especially for a real type A personality with a very active mind like myself, whose idea of relaxing is deep cleaning the bathroom and then planning the next 10 years of her life. It is easy to be calm and Zen-like when everything is going well, when I have just the right amount of stimulation and alone time, but when it is just me and my thoughts, yogic cool goes out the window and all my anxieties, neuroses, and general misery come out to play.
I have become increasingly aware of how my contentment (remember santosha?) is so dependent on external experiences and other people. The challenge for me is to find satisfaction in just being with myself and not listening to those nasty voices that suggest 1,001 ways I could be better or do better or look better and definitely smell better. When no one is watching, when there is no one to impress, no one to try harder for, my psychological baseline, so to speak, becomes clear. Ahimsa, the first [of the five abstentions, or] yama from the Yoga Sutras, is about nonviolence, and often this is interpreted to include kindness and compassion toward ourselves as well.
In the space of empty time between practices, I am challenged to be happy without being busy, to be as compassionate and understanding in my thoughts to myself as I am to my best friends. This is the real yoga for me. All the other stuff is just a formality.