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My Life as an Ashtanga Student in Mysore: Growing Pains

In this essay series, advanced Ashtanga practitioner and writer Leslie Hendry shares how having self-awareness early on helped her develop her practice into something much more profound.

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Shortly after I completed the primary series in Ashtanga yoga, I entered a period of time I call yoga’s “terrible twos.” I was caught between holding onto the world that I knew and embracing a new direction. Before yoga, my body had been sitting upright in front of a computer for 10 hours straight a day. After yoga, my body could perform miraculous movements that left me in awe. I had embarked on a yoga journey with a child’s mind—open and fascinated by the world in front of me. Yet, once I found some stability in the practice, I also found aspects of myself that were disconcerting.

Like a toddler entering his or her terrible twos, I’ll admit I too looked for recognition of the child-like things I could do, such as touching my toes, bending backwards, and swinging my leg behind my head. I had no one with whom to share the immense satisfaction I felt for accomplishing things that I never dreamt I could do as a 38-year-old New York lawyer. No proud parents lived nearby to admire my yogic feats. My boss could care less. My friends were raising their kids and wanted to hear nothing about me turning upside down. They had nice houses and good careers. And here I was, rolling around on the ground in garbha pindasana looking like Humpty Dumpty just cracked her head. The joy I felt physically was a manifestation of what was happening inside. In some ways, asana was a trick to show me how to observe the parallel process of what was happening beneath the surface of physical asana.

When I arrived in Mysore, India to practice at the renown Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Yoga Institute (KPJAYI), my callow desire to show-and-tell was quickly usurped by nerves. In morning practice, I found my physical strengths and limitations within the shala walls that seemed to sweat and breathe like living beings. In the afternoons, I humbly discovered my endless enthusiasm for the Yoga Sutras of which I knew very little about. There was a completely different approach to life based on an ancient philosophy that was deeply rooted in one of the oldest cultures on earth. I drew contrasts between my first stab at life and this unique opportunity to change directions. I gravitated hard toward the new syllabus.

Related: My Life as an Ashtanga Student in Mysore (Part 1)

This wasn’t an escape or holiday although it was also certainly not stressful living. I extracted myself from the real world as I knew it, and began to question what is real. For two months, I stayed in Mysore in a room without air conditioning, and sometimes without a window. I took baths using the same bucket I hand-washed my clothes, hoping I’d wrung out the mildew smell from earlier failed attempts. I tried to fall asleep at 7 p.m. despite the neighbor’s dog throwing a barking fit at midnight.

Over the next 12 years, I would make nine trips to Mysore. Sometimes, I brought work from home, which is its own form of consistency and discovery. I haven’t completely eschewed the Western world nor do I plan to. I always had a return flight home to LA, where I pay rent, own a car, and enjoy my “real” life. Whenever I visit Mysore, however, for those two months, I allow time to understand my personal dharma and duty. On these trips, I’ve sought out every class offering that is remotely associated with yoga, including philosophy, meditation, sutras, chanting, anatomy, painting, singing, Sanskrit, music, Vedic astrology, and pranayama.

On a dinged-up Honda Activa scooter, I buzzed to my afternoon classes, tucking behind big city buses that snorted black plumes of diesel into the air. I dodged oncoming scooters that peeled away from me at the last minute and onto their intended route. From the near misses, I’ve come to understand the flow. Cruising under the shade of large peepal and tamarind trees, I’m inspired and exhilarated. My ego tells me that I’m learning something so different here that I must return home and show the people my acquired knowledge. My intentions were good, but I didn’t realize then how strong the terrible twos would draw me back into show-and-tell mode.

Oftentimes, I breathe a sigh of relief that social media didn’t exist 12 years ago during my formative years in yoga. It would have been too tempting to upload a video or photo of my asana with edifying captions. Instagram and Facebook would have made perfect outlets for distributing and leveraging the self-satisfaction that I experienced early on. I might’ve even gotten lost in how many “likes” that I acquired per post or focused on the next form of content to keep my followers’ attention.

Over time, however, I’ve come to no longer feel the need to school people back home about my new knowledge. Like me, others discover new things on their own timeline. I can only be true to my experiences and to the things that I have unearthed. Throughout this process, I’ve learned a great deal from my guru, Sharath Jois, about yoga and myself that could never have been espoused in one semester or a master’s program for that matter. I’ve made good friends in Mysore, who are also brave learners, exploring new and old territory. I’ve listened to their unique experiences and perspectives. Whether I’m at home or in Mysore, I can sense a calmness growing inside me every year. My reactions altered, my sleep better, my thinking gaining more clarity. Sometimes I think it’s the yoga, then I’m reminded there’s so much more.



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