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Practice

A yoga class where hardly any words are exchanged, there is no fixed start and end time and where it seems at first that everyone is just doing whatever they want - there is no way that can work, right? Actually, yes it works perfectly well! And in a surprisingly effective way, so long as you understand the 'rules' of a Mysore-style Ashtanga class.

First and foremost, Mysore is the name of the city in India, where Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois, one of the founders of modern Ashtanga Yoga, lived and worked. When, at the beginning of the 1970s, the first Americans came to him to learn his form of yoga, they met a man who had switched from studying Sanskrit to teaching asana.

The format of these lessons, however, was quite different from what we in the West are familiar with. Instead of meeting at a fixed time for a class with specific content, the students in Mysore came to Patthabhi Jois' modest premises at different times with the goal of learning individual exercises that they could then practice at home. For a long time this was the classical and exclusive style of teaching: individual attention, but in a group setting where people practiced independently and at their own pace.

It was not until the 1980s when the number of western students grew dramatically that Pattabhi Jois 'invented' the "Led Class". The aim was to teach a large group of people the central practice of "Vinyasa" (breath-synchronous movement) by having the entire group follow the same tempo. In today's Western world, this practice format was welcomed with open arms, because it was a familiar way of practicing. Instead of what appeared to be chaos, there was a single clear initiative of moving and breathing together by following the rhythm and instruction of the teacher, without needing to have a lot of self-motivation.

This principle, which for many of us seems so familiar and feels so right, was not met with the same enthusiasm with Pattabhi Jois' long-standing students. Some even thought the idea of being led through the class to be ridiculous, because it seemed to contradict the fundamental principles of individuality and assuming self-responsibility. Nevertheless, the traditional format of individual practice in a group setting is still taught in some specialized yoga schools.

"I like the peace in the room. Having a job that requires a lot of communication and two children, I spend most of my day answering questions. I am very grateful for the silence and appreciate not being verbally led through the class by a teacher. The only thing I hear while practicing is my breath and the breath of the other practitioners. It's really wonderful! And the occasional whisper between teacher and student does not bother me at all.“

Let's say for example that in your shala, there is a Mysore-style class from 6:00 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. What does that mean? The rule of thumb is that you can come up to 15 minutes early, in this case 5:45 a.m., get yourself ready, roll out the mat and start practicing. In contrast with the Led Class format, you are not expected to stay the entire time and practice. Depending on what your day looks like and what appointments have, you could arrive at 6:30 a.m. or even 6:58 a.m. and then leave at any time based on what works for you. The only requirement is that you come early enough to be able to practice and still have time for a final relaxation.

How am I supported in a Mysore-style class?

The teacher is in the room during the entire class time and they will do their best to individually support each student. The more often you come, the better your relationship with the teacher and the more the teacher can support your individual needs. If need be, you can let your teacher know at the beginning of class if there is something going on that can affect your practice that day, or if you have a specific request or question. In order to maintain calm in the room and to not disturb the concentration of other practitioners who may already be practicing, it is ideal to simplify the request and to speak in a low voice with the teacher. Always let the teacher know in advance if you have an injury or something that they should pay careful attention to.

"I practice Mysore-style because I want to be more in touch with my body and I want to establish ongoing contact in that way. I can practice at my own pace and do not have to follow the lead of a teacher. Additionally, I see how I can let go of old beliefs that don't serve me and perhaps I can learn to curb tendencies of reacting to input by becoming suddenly neurotic. In practicing, I would like to liberate myself of the burdens of the past and lead a more chill and accepting of the moment type of existence. I want to balance out mental deficits and get in touch with my innate sense of trust. Moreover, I would like to improve my flexibility and to practice the Primary Series without so many modifications. "

Teaching without words

Silence characterizes the Mysore-style classroom, which for many takes some getting used to. The only thing that you hear during the practice is the diverse sounds of breath as practitioners utilize the well-known Ujjayi breathing technique. The quiet is occasionally broken with the sound of a teacher whispering a few instructions. This setting enables the highest level of concentration and simultaneously a deep sense of peace.

You still begin and end your practice with the two traditional mantras, but quietly to yourself. In many shalas there is a specific time when the mantra is sung as a group, usually around the time that the majority of students are present.

At the end of your practice for the day, you make your way independently to your end relaxation. You determine the length of time you stay for yourself. Then you collect your things and make your way to the door, but before leaving you thank your teacher with a small nod and a gesture of thanks (Namasté) and then you head off to start your day.

"After taking seven Led Classes, where I learned the basic positions and the final sequence of Ashtanga Yoga, I attended a Mysore event for the first time. I was curious about this unfamiliar class format. It was a real eye-opener, as I became all too aware of the fact that I was still far from clear in recalling the order of the poses and the transitions, let alone the breath-movement connection. After a few months, it was clear that Mysore-style was the best choice for me!"

For beginners to the practice who have not attended a beginners class with the fundamentals of the sequence, the first few Mysore-style classes can be rather short, sometimes lasting only 30 to 45 minutes.

By learning the Primary Series one asana at a time it is intended that you work independently over a period of time. This allows you to take advantage of the wisdom you learn as you progress. You learn the basics of getting into the pose, but then with the repetition in daily practice the sequence is hard-wired in your brain and the movement is internalized in the body. Once you feel comfortable with the basics, your teacher will add on new asana and the sequence grows longer automatically. The teacher guides you and attempts to work with you to find the right tempo, one which will support you best.

"The uncertainty and unrefined awareness of a beginner's practice is tested in the Mysore-style class with it's consistency. You are working through the same set of postures each time, where you can constantly ask and answer new questions, receive individual tips and suggestions and just the right dose of adjustments. You are constantly challenged and motivated in this teaching format.“

The "King's Discipline“: Teaching Mysore Style

As a teacher I try to take a look at the student's practice as a whole. Gradually, I learn more about how the person is practicing and I see what elements the student is consciously working with, as well as where the student may be skipping over things or where certain things that the student may not be aware of can be used. These can be very subtle things such as breathing, alignment or the application of bandha.

So that I can support the student in establishing a meaningful and long-term ongoing practice, it is important to offer these aspects cautiously and piece by piece. Alignment is a great example of how at first a person may not feel pain or discomfort, but over a period of time can have negative consequences through continued repetition and therefore is imperative to address.

Often times, giving a student too many new postures at once is also not useful, because the body may not be physically prepared and the fine details of achieving the new postures are usually learned over time. This is quite the test of patience for beginners to the practice, especially when they are practicing in the room with people who may be further along in the sequence. There is this sense of wanting to push yourself to the limit so that you can "get there" as quickly as possible.

Once the student accepts the teacher, their approach and their advice, a respectful and cooperative relationship is established where there can be meaningful discussions between the two. It is when the student does not feel corrected or trained, but rather encouraged and supported, that I know that I have achieved my goal.

If we are able to become less attached to identifying ourselves with our physical practice, we can share with our students the principle of having a regular, meaningful practice where we are mindfully making the choice to experience the moment. In this way, the student can practice in their own individual and unique way and enjoy where they are here and now. This translates to having a similar perspective in daily life, possibly leading to a growing sense of understanding and compassion for others and building more trust in our relationships.

"My first Mysore-style classes were rather short, because I had just begun learning the poses and so my repertoire was limited to a few sequences. Over time it became much easier to connect movement with breath and the transitions between poses became smoother. Gradually, I received one or two new asana until I established a good foundation with the standing postures of the Primary Series. Simultaneously, I developed my own personal practice that I could practice on my own, whenever and wherever I like, without needing the support of a teacher. “

Nonverbal adjustments are my preferred method for helping my students, and they are really quite practical to use. You can use touch to share ideas or give a sense of orientation in a very clear way. Words can also help, but when you use them keep it short and sweet and give them in a six-inch voice directly to the student so you don't disrupt the concentration of others. In a Mysore-style class there is no space or time for long explanations - here is a time to let the students flow, stay warm through movement and maintain a mindful connection with movement and breath. After class, there is usually time to have a small discussion if something needs to be explained further.

Being a Mysore teacher is a humbling challenge. You are working with each student individually, at their own pace, with patience and unconditional support (regardless of their mood), all the while doing your best not to impose your own ideas or beliefs on them. You establish an ongoing relationship with the students where you show up for them and eagerly exchange ideas with them. Before you can meet these requirements you must be clear within your own being. At the same time, your daily practice is your teacher, and only through maintaining this can you share your experiences with your students. How else can you speak to the importance and positive effects of a daily practice?

"I like my rhythm. In contrast to a led class where I have to follow the rhythm of the group which is often too slow or too fast for me, I can truly focus on my breath. The breath is dependent on lots of things and it is simply beautiful in a Mysore class to be able to flow to your breath count and follow your own beat."

Finding the right Shala, Practicing in Mysore-style and Personal Practice

It makes a lot of sense to find a teacher to help support your learning in a Mysore-style practice. The teacher should be one that you regularly practice with, who you feel confidence in and who has the level of experience and know-how to support your path. How do I recognize a good teacher? Having the right chemistry is a good start, but there are some other signs that you have found the right teacher. Namely, that your teacher has a lineage, meaning that they have learned from their teacher in the same tradition as they teach you, and, that their teaching is informed by their own personal practice. Over time, you can build a stable, mutually respectful and trustful relationship with your teacher, where you as a student feel a sense of being accompanied by your teacher along with all of your concerns, worries or fears.

On top of this, you should be aware that attending Mysore-style classes does not replace your responsibility to your own personal practice. This means that you should also be practicing on your own, even when you do not make it to class. It also makes little sense to practice the full sequence as you know it when you are in Mysore-style class and then only a portion of it when you practice at home. Your teacher will be able to see your progress clearly and help you take the next steps if or when they see that you have been practicing what was last integrated.

If you are having trouble with a position, not sure about the alignment or are not able to get into the pose, take a moment to tell your teacher before you start to practice. They will offer you a useful modification that will bridge where you are now to the pose that you would like to achieve. Any time you are experiencing an issue with a joint or part of the body, tell the teacher first. Similarly to the first case, the teacher should be able to offer you therapeutic exercises that you can integrate into your regular practice to help you to better support that body part. Even when your concern is something such as a lack of strength or coordination, by letting your teacher know they can offer you a preparation exercise or pose to help you to hone in and improve your skill and power.

"I like practicing in a group and I really love the energy that comes with it. To my mind, the energy of a Mysore group is much more intense than a normal Led-Class. Every person puts their full energy, concentration and breath forth and is totally embodied as they practice. This makes the practice even more intense and also very personal. I feel like the room is a safe haven for me to experience my practice to the fullest, however that may be for me that day. It's like being part of an extended family where everyone is there to help one another. I feel that this support network allows me to dive even deeper into my personal practice as when I practice alone at home. In contrast to a Led-Class, I feel that Mysore-style classes create a space where I can really feel into my practice."

So in a nutshell: Whenever you are facing challenges in your practice, try to look into the source of the issue and go to your teacher for advice. Your teacher will be able to offer some advice and together you can work on a path to address the problem. This doesn't mean to just do what your teacher says without question. It is your body and if you aren't sure something is working you should speak up. This means to give your teachers suggestion a try and if you don't feel it's right, let your teacher know and see if you can find a more suitable solution.

Last but not least: you and the other practitioners in the room can be a wonderful source of inspiration and motivation for one another. Here the group creates a sense of community with the same basis, even when each person creates their own personal form. You are connected by a common tradition that can help guide you through what can sometimes be a quite turbulent daily life by realizing that this practice can be your anchor on or off the mat. With time you will notice that the hard work and effort you have invested in your practice will come back to you.

"Practice, practice, practice and all is coming.“

"I recall that at the beginning I was totally against such a form of practice. Everything within me seemed to want to rebel against it. Today I can tell you why: I wanted to be in a led class because I didn't want to take on the responsibility for my practice. I could zone out follow the instructions and do the exercises. And when the lesson sucked, it was the teacher's fault and not my own."

Andreas has exclusively taught Mysore-style classes six days a week since 2016. Led-Classes are only offered once a month. The reason for this is to help those who have recently learned the Primary Series to find a rhythm through the transitions and to recognize the different stops along the way to each pose. At the same time, the students are able to feel what it is like to practice the whole series together and synchronized as a group. The students' reaction? At first many people were skeptical and weren't really sure that Mysore-style was for them because it required so much personal responsibility. Over time the classes grew and grew, thanks to those motivated and courageous pioneers from the start! And since then, things have flourished...