Friday, March 23, 2012

Mysore Antipathy?

"And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music."

Friedrich Nietzsche

Unlike certain bloggers whom I greatly admire, I have yet to master the skill of alluding to a sensitive issue without speaking about it directly. Nor do I seem to be able to camouflage the issue I wish to speak about amid layers of descriptions of things that are unrelated to the issue at hand. Since I lack these skills, I'll just have to speak about what I wish to speak about directly. Perhaps you'll bear with me; if you won't... well, then just don't read the rest of this post :-)

From reading certain blog posts about the recently-concluded Ashtanga Yoga Confluence and communicating with certain Ashtangis, I have picked up on an interesting phenomenon that has arisen of late within the Ashtanga community. It appears that quite a few people who attended the Confluence have perceived a certain undercurrent within the Ashtanga community. Very simply put, the issue concerns a divide between those practitioners who have been to Mysore (and who implicitly or explicitly acknowledge Mysore as the Source of the practice) and those practitioners who haven't, who have no interest in going, and who presumably do not see Mysore as the Source of the practice. InsideOwl, who has been to Mysore several times and who also attended the Confluence, describes the issue this way:

"When I told people in Mysore that I got to attend AshtangaCon, only a handful had heard of it. Of the 600-odd practitioners I brushed past during December, January and February, most are way outside the AshtangaCon orbit. So I told them about it. Every single person I told expressed excitement and envy—how inspiring to meet all these teachers in the tradition. And you’ll see a lot of old friends. What a great time. To put it lightly, this was not the attitude of many people in San Diego when I mentioned I’d just spent the winter in Mysore with Sharath.

So… in Mysore, people imagine their counterparts across the ocean and express delight, curiosity, inspiration and respect. In San Diego, the vibe toward Mysore is very different."

Owl, whom I greatly respect, is coming at the issue from a certain perspective (which I also greatly respect). But being somebody who has neither been to Mysore nor attended the Confluence, I want to try to reframe the issue in language that is as neutral as possible. Yeah, I am aware that there are lots of very smart people out there who believe that value-free, "neutral" observation is a contradiction in terms and therefore an exercise in futility. Fair enough. But I'm going to try anyway (and then you smart people can tell me where I've gone wrong :-)). So here goes:

It appears to me that there is a certain antipathy on the part of certain Ashtangis at the Confluence towards the idea of going to Mysore. Or maybe the antipathy is directed not so much at the idea of going to Mysore, but at the place itself; perhaps it is directed at the idea that Mysore is or should be the Source of the practice ("Why should this place halfway across the world, which I've never even been to, be the Source of this practice that I do everyday? What has this place to do with me?"). Or it could even be that the antipathy is directed at certain individuals in Mysore.

I don't know which of the above possibilities is the case; maybe it's a combination of two or more of these possibilities? Actually, I don't even know if "antipathy" is the right word to use in describing this feeling. Is it too strong a word? Or too weak? At any rate, I think that "antipathy" would at least be a less biased--and hopefully, more neutral--word choice than "negative": I'm quite sure that the Ashtangis who have this feeling have very good reasons for feeling this way, and I don't want to give the impression that there is a clear-cut "right" or "wrong" side to take in this issue.

So, if it's okay with you, let us proceed on the hypothesis that "antipathy" correctly and aptly describes what these Ashtangis are feeling about Mysore/going to Mysore/certain individuals in Mysore. This being the case, I suppose the next question to ask would be: Why do these Ashtangis feel this antipathy? I'm going to take a cue from Owl again here. She has this to say to these Ashtangis:

"Do whatever you want, but for godsakes don’t miss the good stuff out of misplaced skepticism, fear, or for the sake of other peoples’ battles."

If Owl is correct, this suggests that the feeling of antipathy is motivated by a certain fear, distrust, and/or skepticism, although it's still not entirely clear at this point whether or not the fear/distrust/skepticism is misplaced. What is it that motivates this fear, distrust or skepticism, assuming it's there? In other words, fear of what? Skepticism about what?     

One possible answer is that the fear is a fear of being judged. Perhaps an Ashtangi may have, at some point in her practice career, received some less-than-favorable response when she admitted to her Mysore-returned colleague that she has never been to Mysore: In the words of one commenter on Owl's post, the Ashtangi in question may well have "seen eyes drop away, or looks of barely hidden disdain, have felt the hesitation to connect, and observed frozen smiles" when she said, “No, I’ve never been to Mysore.”

If this is correct, then a big part of the antipathy may well be a kind of backlash towards an earlier antipathy (intentional or unintentional) on the part of those who have had the opportunity to go to Mysore towards those who, for one reason or another, have not made the trip. In this way, perhaps whatever antipathy that is presently being felt towards Mysore by these Ashtangis is well-founded and justified.

But what if being justified is not enough? At the risk of sounding like I am speaking from a yogic moral high horse (because I probably am), I'm going to say something really obvious here: Being justified is not the same as being... happy. Is it possible that in the midst of feeling this antipathy (and being totally justified in feeling so), one might be missing out on some "good stuff", as Owl puts it? What might this "good stuff" be? I don't really know; having neither been to Mysore nor the Confluence, I'm probably the least qualified person to say anything about this. But think about it this way: Could it be that in having this antipathy and allowing this antipathy to guide one's choices and decisions with regard to the practice, one may be unwittingly allowing this antipathy to shut oneself off from a certain other way of seeing things--one which could possibly open up an entire other universe of possibilities?

Maybe all this sounds very vague and abstract. To make it less so, perhaps I'll say something about how I personally feel about this going or not going to Mysore business. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you will know that (a) I have never been to Mysore, and (b) I really want to go someday (hopefully sooner rather than later). I have great respect for those who have made the trip and for the great sacrifices that many of these folks have had to make in order to keep returning there. But on the other hand, I do not feel any the less adequate or "legit" as a practitioner just because I haven't been to Mysore, and I definitely do not think that one's practice is somehow less complete just because one hasn't been there... Actually, come to think of it, this may be the sticking point. I often feel that many of us in the west have this sort of all-or-nothing mentality regarding many things in life: If you have done something or gone somewhere, then you are IT. If you haven't, well, then you're NOTHING. At the risk of over-simplifying things (although, I suspect, not by much), I have this suspicion that this kind of all-or-nothing thinking may be a big driving force behind this feeling of antipathy that so many feel: Perhaps the antipathy is a sort of defense mechanism, a response to some consciously- or unconsciously-held feeling that if one hasn't been to Mysore, then one's practice is NOTHING. In order to counter this nagging feeling of nothingness, the Ashtangi in question erects a line of defense against it: "But look, we have this wonderful Ashtanga community in San Diego/New York/Boulder/[insert your favorite big city] led by senior teacher so-and-so. Who needs Mysore?"

I'm not saying that anybody out there actually subscribes to this defense mechanism: I'm just thinking aloud, as always. In any case, as with the fear/distrust/skepticism factor, this defense mechanism may very well be well-founded and justified. But again, is being justified the same as being happy? Consider the following alternative: What if there were a way of holding the feeling of not having been to Mysore, or even the feeling of not ever wanting to go to Mysore, without having to justify this feeling by erecting any kind of fear/distrust reaction or defense mechanism (and the accompanying feeling of antipathy)? Perhaps if one could just sit with these feelings without erecting any further justificatory reactions or defense mechanisms, one could be just a little less... antipathic (is this even a word?) and maybe, just maybe, a little more... happy?

Maybe all of this is a little too easy for me to say; after all, although I have never been to Mysore, I also have never had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of eyes dropping away, looks of barely-concealed disdain, or frozen smiles. I'll even confess that I may be speaking here about things that I know little about (since, to repeat for the umpteenth time, I haven't been to Mysore, nor was I at the Confluence). But I love talking and thinking about things, especially things that directly concern the practice and the evolution of the practice. If you have any thoughts about any of this, I'll love to hear from you.           


  1. I was the commentator on InsideOwl's blog you quote. I thought my question on her blog (which came up at the Confluence, but was not really answered/avoided by the panel at the time) is pertinent.

    Maybe the word is not "antipathy", Nobel - that word is a bit limiting/harsh. Maybe it's a lack of empathy - a lack of clear perception of the others' views - on both sides. Yes, it depends on the person and whether or not they feel the need to justify their choice. I stand by my choice to defer going. When my kids don't need me as much, I'll go. It's as simple as that. I can wait.

    Perhaps I have just come across folks who have gone to Mysore who need to justify their choice to do the opposite, or feel the need proselytize about the lessons, the depth and deep meaning of the experience for them. I've heard "You've just got to go, it will change your life, you'll learn so much there!" too often.

    I always want to answer with this, but don't because I'm polite: "Have some kids and work really hard to keep your marriage strong, sexy and happy for two decades while you try to raise them into functional human beings - you'll learn a hell of a lot more from that process than you will during a trip to South India."

    One Truth, Many Paths, according to Vedanta.

    Instead, I just say, sincerely, "Right on" to folks who have gone to Mysore. Yes, it probably does change you and your practice - deepens it, makes it more meaningful. It's a blessing - be thankful.

    But, here's the thing - you still have to come back to your life and do the work there, too.

    Nancy said something important at the Confluence - that the practice should fit your lifestyle, not the other way around, and that sacrificing your life to support the practice is not ahimsa/compassion. Eddie also said something along these lines when asked about Enlightenment: "Yoga is about the relationship with the person in front of you."

    I think what they are saying is that, ultimately, we all have to get down to the business of living meaningful, functional and hopefully happy lives that alleviate suffering for ourselves and for those with whom we come into contact. The practice is there to help us in that goal - it's not meant to be the goal.

    1. Wow, you bring up many interesting and insightful points, I'm not even sure where to begin to respond :-)

      Maybe I'll start with this. On reflection, I think you are right that "antipathy" is a little limiting/harsh. I think you are also right that there is definitely a lack of clear seeing/perception (avidya?) on both sides.

      Thanks for bringing up the other side of the picture, which is that one's life off the mat is just as much part of the practice as one's life on the mat. Very true: Working to maintain a healthy family life is harder than a trip to South India. In a similar vein, Nicki Doane once said (I paraphrase), "If you are an asshole off the mat, then you are doing gymnastics, not yoga." There are probably people out there who "hide behind" their practice on the mat while neglecting their day-to-day lives.

      "The practice is there to help us in that goal - it's not meant to be the goal."

      This is true. And this can probably be extended to going to Mysore as well; going to Mysore is a great way to deepen one's practice, if one does it with the right intention. But it is not and should not be the be-all and end-all of the Ashtanga practice. That said, I think it is also possible to go to the other extreme, totally dismiss the significance of Mysore, and (in my opinion) throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    2. "Have some kids and work really hard to keep your marriage strong, sexy and happy for two decades while you try to raise them into functional human beings - you'll learn a hell of a lot more from that process than you will during a trip to South India."
      the winner THANK YOU

  2. Laughing. Your Nietzsche quotation is relevant to my life in many ways, some of them literal.

    This is also funny: "Nor do I seem to be able to camouflage the issue I wish to speak about amid layers of descriptions of things that are unrelated to the issue at hand." I do like how it took three whole days for anybody to notice the post. I think maybe I wrote it to trick people into reading my idle descriptions of the Denver airport.

    1. I hope you will continue to dance beautifully to the music that only you can hear :-)

      Actually, I noticed your post on the first day it was published. I somehow had this hunch that there was more to it than your descriptions of the Denver airport, beautiful as they are.

  3. I noticed it right away too, but was taking some extra time to think about it.

  4. whoa:) as being in same boat as you Nobel, haven't been/would like to go/ did not go to confluence/ honestly, I really don't care what other's think or don't think about not having gone yet. It does not make me less of a practitioner. I have a wealth of senior teachers to study with here in the US, if I get to go, great. If not, great:) Nice to see u back:)

    1. Very nicely said :-) These days, it seems that I either go for days without blogging or blog a lot at one time :-)

  5. Wow. I mean wowee wow. The posts have been so interesting. And it's all stuff I've been thinking about and almost but not quite writing about. What Michelle said really touches home for me. Just staying home and raising your children and maintaining a healthy/ sexy marriage is such a huge learning experience, I'm sure that Mysore is cool and amazing and I'd love to go but... I didn't discover this practice until after having children.

    I respect Owl's position that there's a lot going on in Mysore that is of value. So there's no need to throw all that away or disrespect it. Who is Insideowl anyway and can we go study with her somewhere??? I guess I should ask her that myself :).

    But there is a sense that people are saying if you're not authorized or certified to teach, then you are somehow less of a teacher or maybe shouldn't be teaching at all. Which I don't agree with. There are a lot of great teachers around here who have never been to Mysore. I learned the practice from a woman who hasn't been there yet. And I've studied with certified teachers and authorized teachers, and they were pretty amazing too. So as a subculture within a subculture, we need to find a way to respect and appreciate each other's gifts. Maybe Mysore is like getting the degree from Harvard. It's pretty fancy, nice if you can get it, but not a requirement. In the end it's not where you graduate from, it's what you do with the piece of paper hanging on your wall.

    1. Hello Deborah, yes, it is so true that maintaining a household and a healthy/sexy marriage while doing the practice to the best of your ability is just as much a powerful experience as returning to Mysore every year; although that also has its challenges and rewards that should not be downplayed.

      InsideOwl's real world identity is Angela Jamison. She is a recently authorized Ashtanga teacher who lives and teaches in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I'm saying all this because I know that Owl/Angela does not mind us knowing her real world identity.

      Yes, maybe we can all make a collective trip to Ann Arbor someday soon to study with Angela? I can already picture this happening in my mind: It'll be such a great gathering of Ashtanga bloggers/Ashtangeeks! What do you think, Owl? :-)

      I also agree with you regarding your feelings on being authorized/certified/being qualified to teach. I think Owl recently wrote somewhere that the whole authorized/certified thing is really something westerners came up with in order to lord it over others. Coming from a slightly different perspective, Magnolia Zuniga also recently wrote a very insightful and heartfelt article on this issue:

  6. Deborah, yes, Michelle's is a really grounded, clear voice. Thanks to both of you.

    I blogged anonymously starting in late 2006, after spending a few years lurking and occasionally commenting at the EZ Board. Those archives are amazing - I suggest people really interested in internet ashtanga read everything there.

    In Novemeber, I quit my academic job (I had been a PhD student at UCLA, and was by the time I finally quit an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan). I prized that job and kept (0v0) anonymous to protect it. But teaching requires all of me. So that is what I do now. Our little Mysore program has a tiny internet portal here:

    I do not teach workshops. (Unless it's at a studio owned by someone who is my student - there will be one in Ontario and one in Scotland this year). But sometimes people do come to visit. We loooooove that. Fine to get in touch via the website if you are interested.

    1. I was just replying to Deborah's comment above when you posted this comment, so I missed it :-)

      Being a struggling academic myself (Got my PhD at U of Florida, taught a year at Marquette University as a Visiting Assistant Professor, now in my second year as a fixed-term at Minnesota State University Moorhead), I totally empathize with everything that you have done. I also totally feel and understand what a great step it was for you to take to leave academia. You have my greatest respect.

      But as you said somewhere, it is very cheesy to praise somebody too much too publicly. So I'll change the subject now. I don't have anything specific in mind yet, but I really think it would be wonderful if we can all come to visit with you/practice/study with you. What do you think? :-)

    2. Thanks, Angela, Deborah and Nobel, for your kind words. I'm a bit of an Ashtanga geek, and in my pursuit of knowledge, and connection/community, I found and began reading all of your blogs last Fall - lurking out of shyness. I only just started commenting more recently, hoping to offer a respectful but honest perspective on what's bubbling up in the Ashtanga world and in my own practice.

      Reading all of your personal insights has been fun, surprising and helpful these past months. So, kudos to the cybershala and many thanks to all of you - Deborah, Angela and Nobel - and to many others whose words and wisdom I appreciate (Bobbi and Steve, and Grimmly, and Claudia come to mind.)

      I would love to come to Ann Arbor and practice with you, Angela. You are amazingly brave to do what you are doing - leaving the security of your job and your initial career path to teach Ashtanga Yoga. A huge endeavor! I wish you the very best in creating and growing your Ashtanga community there. Persevere.

      I do feel bad that my comment/question on InsideOwl set off something of a powder keg. I abhor trolls and don't want anyone to think that I'm one, so, a bit of personal history of my own:

      I moved five years ago to the Northampton, MA area, a town rife with yoga studios - but absolutely no Ashtanga (the nearest true Ashtanga studios were over an hour away from my home - it was impossible to get to a Mysore class with kids to ship off to school). Sure, an occasional led "Primary" could be found in Noho, but we all know that doesn't really suffice in the long term. After 18 months of practicing at home, I felt stagnant - and lonely. I found an affordable room in a converted schoolhouse, rehabbed it, and opened a studio in late 2009. I wanted to try to create an Ashtanga community where there had been none.

      After almost 3 years and many fits and starts, I have around 35 students, with about ten folks in the Mysore classes. (Interestingly, switching to mostly Mysore classes last Fall was the catalyst for both the community and my teaching - both became stronger and more grounded.)

      We've become a little Ashtanga community. Like a perennial garden, there was a lot of preparation, a lot of waiting to see if things would grow - fits and starts, and setbacks. I persevered. Things are starting to sprout. My students are happy students and really good people - some who, like me, had been lonely practitioners, and many of whom had never practiced Ashtanga before, but found it through my little space.

      "Yoga is about the person in front of you." Where better than a Mysore class to experience that connection with others, each moment of stillness and breath and communion between yourself and the person in front of you? And then you go to the next person and experience that connection once more. Through this, I begin to understand all I have read and heard about Guruji's love for his students - because I truly feel love for my students. They are my friends, and we care for one another.

      I feel very, very grateful for this blessing.

      "First you practice, then you teach, then all is coming."

    3. Hi Michelle! It's a lot more likely that I'll get to Florence, MA than to Michigan this year, so we should get to meet in person, perhaps this Summer. I'm about an 1 1/2 hour drive away from you. Thanks for your lovely comments here. A blog is a surprising amount of work to maintain and it's nice to hear that it is of use.

    4. Wow, I'm really happy that my post has sparked off such a wonderful exchange :-)

      Michelle, please do not feel that you have set off a powder keg and/or that you are trolling. Well, if you have set off a powder keg, it's in a good way: A powder keg of loving kindness/good vibes, if you will. I also really respect all your work in setting up a Mysore community in Noho. Here in Fargo, ND, my friends Derek and Brenda have just started a Mysore program. It's just once a week (Saturday morning), and I can whenever my schedule permits. I also really feel their love whenever I go there.

      Deborah, thanks for sharing. I still don't know exactly what I'm doing this summer yet. I'm teaching for the first four weeks, but after that, things are open (I want to leave some off-time to work on a couple of paper projects that I have). But please let me know if and when you do decide to go anywhere (Florence, MA, Ann Arbor, MI). I'll see if I can come too :-)

      And yes, maintaining a blog is a bit of work. It;s exchanges like this that make the work worthwhile. So yes, please continue to set off powder kegs :-)

      Angela, thanks for starting this whole conversation in the first place :-)

  7. Yes; come. You're totally welcome here.

  8. Drawing up a marriage/kids OR Mysore equation isn't necessary: I brought my daughter with me. And my husband and I had Skype to keep in touch pretty much daily. Mysore can be a great adventure for the whole family, even if everyone doesn't go along.

  9. Thanks for sharing, Karen. Yes, I forgot there is such a thing as Skype :-) It's really great that you are able to use technology to creatively communicate with your family :-)

  10. That's awesome you could bring your daughter, Karen. I'm glad you had the ability to make your trip to Mysore work so well for both you and your family. It must have been difficult, but well worth the effort and time. I'm sure it will be something your daughter will be pleased to have done when she herself starts the practice.

    Still, can we just agree that, for each person, the situation is unique? Many paths, one truth? For example, bringing my three kids, or even the two younger ones, who are about 18 months apart, alone, to India, did not even cross my mind 10 years ago. As for Skype, it's only been around for about 2 years as far as I know, so "Skyping" would not have been available to me.

    But, more pertinent to my situation is that my husband does not do the practice, and only recently has accepted that yoga is not a religion, and Ashtanga is not a cult. (The first two decades of his life were intensely Catholic.) He read this article many years ago, and it blackened his views regarding a trip to Mysore -

    A quote from this article, the fear it generated in him, has haunted him to this day: "One of the constant topics of conversation among the yoga students was whether you could have a satisfying yoga practice and also have a more conventional life: a home, a spouse, a family. The general consensus was no."

    Without getting into too much personal detail, let's just say, Mysore is something that would have caused huge problems in my marriage when my kids were young and more "portable" for lack of a better word.

    I would not be married now if I had gone. I have no doubt of that. And, I'm really happily married, so that would be a great shame if we had ended things - not just for me, but for him and especially for my children.

  11. Everyone's situation is unique. Absolutely.

    I don't want to be credited with triumphing over adversity, though -- all I had to do was wait until my daughter was old enough and my husband okay enough about me taking off to parts unknown.

    I really don't have any feelings about whether people should or shouldn't go to Mysore. I'm not a teacher, so that whole aspect of it is off my radar. I just couldn't go until I could go and then I went. My only thought on this issue is that things change: it seems like people are staking out their positions on the question of Mysore or Not, and probably for almost everyone it'd be easier to just remain open and see what happens -- go if you can, don't if you can't, things may change in the future. That sort of thing. :-)

  12. Thanks for sharing your views here, Karen and Michelle. I have learnt a lot from your exchange.

    "One of the constant topics of conversation among the yoga students was whether you could have a satisfying yoga practice and also have a more conventional life: a home, a spouse, a family. The general consensus was no."

    I think I can understand why your husband (or anybody who is not into the "cult" of Ashtanga, really) would be alarmed by this passage. But notice that the question here is whether you can have a satisfying yoga practice and also have a "more conventional life". I'm not entirely sure what "more conventional life" means. Maybe it means thing like: a home in the suburbs on which you are regularly making mortgage payments, two cars, two or more kids, a retirement/kids' college education plan... in other words, the so-called American Dream... As we all know, events in the last couple of yeas have shown that this Dream isn't really all it's cracked up to be...

    I have nothing against the American Dream, or any dream, really. But is this conventional life the only life worth living? Perhaps there are other not-so-conventional ways of living lives and having families that could be just as fulfilling? And this is what the practice challenges us to do anyway: Get outside the comfort zone of having a particular fixed way of seeing things and thinking that "this is how it must be", and try to make things work in a way that works best for oneself, whether or not it happens to be "conventional".

    Wow, I'm really ranting, aren't I? :-) That said, I also am struggling with the decision of when (if ever) to go to Mysore vs. my personal life and career. So I'm in no position to preach about anything to anyone here. But recently, I've come to the conclusion that there'll probably never be a "perfect time" to go to Mysore. Whenever one chooses to go, there will always be challenges. I guess it comes to a matter of deciding what we value, and then trying to find a way to make everything come together (or not).

  13. Wow. My mind is exploding, in a good way of course. What a discussion! Part of the Mysore 'guilt trip' that some teachers may feel about never having gone may also stem from pronouncements by Sharath that you can't teach unless you're authorized/certified by KPJAYI to do so. I've read his words about that (through conference reports) quite a few times so I think there's a little bit of finger-wagging going on from those who've been towards those who haven't and yet teach.

    I don't have any position about whether to go or not to go, even if I'm planning my own trip this year. It really boils down to your personal circumstances in life, as Michelle's case clearly demonstrates. Some of my favorite teachers in the local shala have never practiced at KPJAYI but I love them and have a rapport with them. Isn't that one of the essential parts of the practice - building and growing that teacher-student relationship?

    1. Hello D, thanks for sharing. From reading conference reports, I do not get the sense that Sharath is wagging his fingers at people who have not been to Mysore/are not authorized, but who genuinely want to share the practice with others. If there is any finger-wagging on his part, it seems to be directed towards people who want to be teachers because it makes them look good/feel superior, etc., but who also are not willing to put in the time and effort to cultivate their personal practices.

      Of course, it is also entirely possible that there are people out there who interpret Sharath's words in such a way as to justify their own finger-wagging at those who haven't gone to Mysore. Now that is a different story.

      I hope you get to go to Mysore this year :-)

  14. Oh no, I wasn't saying that Sharath was doing the finger-wagging - my point was exactly as you articulated in the second paragraph of your response, that it's the people doing the interpretation who are judging others.

    I will keep you posted on those Mysore plans - we are headed back to Singapore for the holidays, so it would be a real pity not to hop over to India while there ;)

    1. Understood :-)

      Look forward to hearing about your upcoming adventures, whether or not they include Mysore :-)