Writer and ashtanga practitioner Graham Clews recently spent four months in Mysore, studying ashtanga at the home of Pattabhi Jois. By doing so, he fulfilled many ashtanga yogis' lifetime ambition. Here, he tells what to expect.
The prospect of spending four months in a foreign country can be a daunting one.
The idea of spending a quarter of a whole year in an obscure city in Southern India practising at the mildly secretive K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute can be even more so.
The KPAYI website covers some of the practicalities, but it's not so much directions that people are after; rather, an idea of what it will be like to decamp to Mysore to study ashtanga for a minimum of a month.
All prospective students of Pattabhi Jois are required to give his shala at least two months' notice in writing that they intend to practise there, though it's clearly stated not to expect a reply.
This can be lesson number one for Western would-be ashtangis left fretting about quitting their job, emptying their bank account, jetting to the sub-continent, with no guarantee that they'll be met with blank looks at the shala because of the vagaries of the Indian postal system.
In fact, like most things in India, its postal service might be sluggish and bureaucracy-ridden, but it works. Your letter will get there, and it's vital to send one otherwise you'll likely be turned away.
A watchful eye
The shala is phenomenally popular these days. Guruji himself, now 93, is too weak to teach, although he keeps a watchful eye on proceedings from the background.
His grandson Sharath effectively runs the shala, with teaching help from his mother Saraswathi, and any rumours of their brusque or abrasive manner will soon be quashed.
You couldn't hope to meet a more gentle and unassuming family. If you're late for practice you might be told that 'ashtanga yoga not for lazy people', or admonished with a 'no crying', if the intensity of your backbend forces out a yelp, but it's all good-natured, and Sharath has clearly inherited his grandfather's mischievous sense of humour.
So what do you actually do all day? You'll be given a start time when you register, so make sure you turn up on time in the morning (shala time is ten minutes' fast).
Wait patiently until it's your turn, then put down your mat and start your practise. Keep going until they tell you to stop, and then move to the changing rooms for the closing sequence.
Then return the next morning and do the same thing again, stopping where you were previously told to. Don't worry if you think you're being ignored, Sharath will know just how your practice is, when you need help, or when you should be given a new pose.
After practice fresh coconut water from the truck parked outside the shala is mandatory, chai from the stand round the corner is optional, and a leisurely breakfast from one of the western-style cafes catering to yoga students is a regular treat.
The shala offers Sanskrit and chanting lessons with the charming Laxmish, and other teachers in the city provide classes in Indian philosophy and meditation, but the rest of the day is your own.
After two hours of incredibly sweaty yoga, and a 4am alarm call ahead of you for the next day's practice, the chances are you'll want to take it easy.
Rheumy-eyed Mysore veterans reminisce nostalgically about the 'old shala', when Guruji taught just a handful of students from a small room in the gritty Mysore district of Lakshmipuram.
It's not like that anymore. The shala has relocated to the affluent suburb of Gokulam, the 'Beverly Hills of Mysore', and up to 200 students can be registered at any one time.
Nowadays only the really dedicated students are privileged to start practice in the pre-dawn, and the amount of personal attention is inevitably less than it was.
But the one thing that remains constant is the mark that extended practice at KPAYI makes on almost all visitors. That you'll be vowing to return as soon as your time is up.
Top tips for a stay at Mysore.
- Chat to everyone you meet. You're guaranteed to make new friends, and it's the only way to keep your finger on the pulse.
- Don't worry about being cut off from home. Broadband internet connection is commonplace, and Indian SIM cards can be used with your own phone for next to nothing.
- Some types of Western food are impossible to get hold of. Cheese mainly. You want Parmigiano Reggiano, Dolcelatte, or a nice organic Brie? No chance.
- Take the chance to get out of Mysore and see some of India. Train and bus travel is phenomenally cheap and the backwaters and beaches of Kerala, the hill stations of the Niligris and Coorg, and bustling Bangalore are all within easy reach.
- Enjoy it. It is what it is. It might be how you imagined; more likely it won't be, but it is the real thing, that's for sure.
Graham Clews is a freelance journalist and novice ashtangi who recently spent four months studying at the Shri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute.
Other articles about Pattabhi Jois and Mysore:
Top image shows Graham with Pattabhi Jois' grandson, Sharath. Bottom image is of Pattabhi Jois.