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My Life as an Ashtanga Student in Mysore: Heard on “The Yoga Trail”

In this essay series, advanced Ashtanga practitioner and writer Leslie Hendry shares an inside look at her experiences on a special yoga path and the important teachings she has learned along the way.

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After three months in India and elsewhere in 2005, I hopped an overnight train from Chennai to Mysore. Before India, I had been in Southeast Asia on what I called “The Yoga Trail,” a series of stops that I made through various countries to practice Ashtanga yoga. I first gravitated toward this style of yoga when I quit my finance job in London. I had spent the past 10 years building a career in law and finance, but when two colleagues died in the World Trade Center on September 11th, it sent a message: Live every moment with meaning. Four years after the terrorist attacks in 2001, I decided to turn down the volume on my central nervous system and learn a healthier way of being. This is where “The Yoga Trail” began en route to the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Yoga Institute in Mysore.

A city in southern India, Mysore offers a charming retreat from the hustle and bustle of nearby major metropolises, like Bangalore to the northeast. At every turn, you’ll find a temple or a pipal tree with red and ocher powders dusted around its trunk, where spontaneous worship to Lord Vishnu or Shiva can be offered. The institute is located in the neighborhood of Gokulam, a place that after traveling through small villages and large industrial cities, I couldn’t help but nickname “Beverly Hills” from the lush greens trees, affluent two-story homes, and fancy front-yard gardens. Still, there was no doubt, I was far from home: Piglets freely roamed the ravines with their mamas and holy cows grazed the streets in a moveable feast of delights often fed from the hands of Indian housewives.

What brought me here? My intended teacher, Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois (known as Guruji) lived and taught in Mysore, where serious students of yoga make their pilgrimage. He was a student of T. Krishnamacharya and helped to advance yoga into today’s world. Guruji’s yoga is Ashtanga yoga. Mysore is the source. Mecca. This was where I was heading on “The Yoga Trail.” Along the way I’d met people practicing at different levels, in different stages of their lives, from different countries. The things they talked about became part of my personal yoga journey, too.

Related: Sharath Jois Shares His Personal Yoga Story

Some people groused that Mysore is expensive. “You’ll be gouged on rent,” they warned. Of course, I’d found other parts of India cheaper than Mysore, but when I arrived, I found a house with a converted puja (prayer) room to sleep in for $40. Not bad. It was the second myth about Mysore that had me nervous: Cash flow was unreliable in these parts. After I settled into my room, I forged for rupees. “The Yoga Trail” warned me one must have the exact fee. After several ATMs rejected me, I anxiously appeared at registration with no money. “No problem,” a woman who worked at the institute said, bobbling her head left and right. The institute ran on the honor system.

“The Yoga Trail” had failed to state that of Guruji’s classes could be full, which they were. Instead I signed up to practice with his grandson, Sharath. “The Yoga Trail” whispered “Beware. This energy is fake. You will fly in the shala, but it’ll never be duplicated elsewhere. The energy is like a drug high.”

“The Yoga Trail” was partly right. I was flying. Jump backs, jump-throughs, twists, lift up, up dog, down dog, inhale, exhale. Oxygen in, oxygen out. Endorphins coursed through me. My body moved like I was inhabited by an ethereal spirit. It was incredibly fun, and if I would never have this experience again, I didn’t care. I loved everything about it. I loved silently waiting in the cue watching the experienced practitioners with earlier start-times than me. I loved jumping to attention when Sharath commanded “one more.” No one in the room spoke except for him. We were a silent orchestra, and he was the maestro. We knew the notes to the music.

Inside the shala, I dripped with sweat. In a new-age-y meets kindergartener’s attempt to better connect to yoga and my newly found freedom, I wrote “Tierra” in black marker on my purple yoga mat, which in Spanish means land or earth. I was trying to find an identity or purpose to hold onto. My friends back home would later accuse me of having too much time on my hands, sitting around naming a yoga mat.

“Tierra,” Sharath said, waving me inside to practice. At first, I didn’t respond, but then I realized he was calling my yoga mat name. “The Yoga Trail” professed that you’re just a number in Mysore. No one will know who you are. But now Sharath knew my name. Well, my yoga mat’s name.

Intuitively, I must have known that I was heading in the right direction. A new me was somewhere inside. A different me from the one engaged in finance and law. I learned Atha Yoganushasanam on my first trip to Mysore. The first sutra of The Yoga Sutras written by the sage Patanjalim, and the basis for yoga philosophy. It translates to: “Now there is yoga.” This was how I felt. Now I was ready for change. Now I was ready to embrace a alternate approach to life. Now I was leaving behind an old formula and exploring a new one. Now I was like a newborn slapped on the bum and breathing in oxygen for the first time. A new name was apropos.

I looked at Sharath, grabbed Tierra, and walked into the shala.

While the word Tierra has faded from that mat, I still practice on it whenever I visit my family in Texas. I’ve returned to Mysore plenty of times since that first fateful visit, and I’ve humbly learned many lessons. I trust in the process. I no longer listen to the whispers of “The Yoga Trail.” I listen to my guru, Sharath, who reminds me of this: “In this life, we each have unique experiences and a unique life to realize. No two experiences are the same.”



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