Monday, February 7, 2011

The Heart of Yoga

The KYM is an oasis in the midst of Chennai’s craziness.  The four story white building is surrounded by a modest but nonetheless beautiful garden, and this in turn is protected from the noise and rush of the city by a tall wall.  The garden has a variety of plants: some, like the bougainvillea, I recognize, but others are completely unknown to me.  A small black statue of Patanjali sits on a brick pedestal that is surrounded by plants, and there’s a beautiful gazebo tucked as far back from the street as possible which is a perfect place to sit for pranayama and meditation.

The first floor has the registration area, bookstore and living quarters for the maintenance staff.  The subsequent two floors seem to have offices, though I haven’t explored those much.  The fourth floor (3rd floor button on the elevator) is where we have our classes.  There’s a small sitting area right as you come out of the elevator where students leave their shoes, but most of the floor is taken up by the classroom: a bright, airy room with a skylight that is starting to be covered with ivy.  The walls, ceiling and tile floor are all white and there are three large portraits hanging on the wall: two of T.K.V. Desikachar (one with him in the midst of mantra practice and the other of him placing his guru’s sandals on his head, an act of devotion and humility) and one of Sri T. Krishnamacharya (Desikachar’s father and guru).  The latter hangs, along with a string of white or yellow flowers that are changed daily, at the focal point of the room from which teachers lecture. 

There’s a room next door which has no clear purpose to me.  There’s a few oddly placed desks, some of them with computers.  It looks like it could be a classroom but the layout doesn’t seem conducive to lecturing.  Next to that is the bathroom. 

The rooftop is flat and has a covered sitting area where our class enjoys breakfast and tea daily.  Most of the rooftop is uncovered, though, and offers views of the city in all directions.  This is also where a few of us practice every morning on our own before our first class.

Our day is very structured: everyday we have the same classes and each lasts 50 minutes.  At 7:30a.m. we meet for asana practice.  Pink and purple mats are laid out for us by the time we get in, all of them facing the front of the class, where there’s a white mat reserved for the teacher’s assistant who demonstrates all of the asanas and vinyasas. 

After class we head to the rooftop for breakfast, which changes slightly everyday but always vegetarian and pretty reliable involves something made out of rice with a delicious, spicy sauce, a fruit bowl, a banana, toasted white bread with butter, and chai.  I have developed an appreciation for chai, so much so that I have not had coffee for a week, which anyone who knows me will tell you is an amazing undertaking for me.

By the time we get back in the room at 9a.m., the mats have been removed and the floor has been covered with large colorful blankets.  There’s cushions and tiny stools along the wall that most of us grab to use for sitting and as desks, respectively.  Many of the classes involve intense lecturing and thus note-taking so the desks come in handy. 

The Principles of Yoga class at 9a.m. is no exception.  Here we cover the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (whose statue is in the garden) and the foundational philosophy of yoga in general.  Intellectually this is probably one of the most challenging classes.  We’re talking about the nature of existence here so the stuff is not light at all.  Yoga Philosophy is closely linked to Samkhya philosophy; both are dualist and divide everything in existence into two fundamental sources: Consciousness (or the soul) and Matter (everything else).  On Thursday we had an especially involved class because the teacher presented the notion that the mind falls into the category of Matter.  The longest and most intense discussion I’ve seen yet here ensued and its resolution was more truce than agreement, I think.

At 10a.m. we have Principles of Asana, a great class where we essentially talk about why we do things in a certain way in our practice.  Lots of focus on the purpose of yoga, the mechanism and effects of asana and pranayama practice in the body and mind, and how yoga can be used to create the effects that we want. 

Then at 11a.m. we have our Vedic Chanting class.  This is the most painful of all the classes because Sanskrit pronunciation is tough and in a room of 22 people with different accents, you are bound to get variations in pronunciation and pacing.  Of all the teachers, this is the one who laughs the most.  She has a beautiful voice that she controls so precisely; most of us can’t even begin to understand how she crates certain sounds.  She does her best to remain poised during class, looking very much like an opera diva who takes her trade very seriously.  But we are so outstandingly awful at times that it drives this woman to smile a lot and laugh at least twice each class. In the last few we’ve managed to make her cover her face because she has to laugh so hard.  She tries to laugh silently but we can see her head and shoulders bobbing slightly behind her notes, though, so we know she can hardly contain herself.  This class leaves me exhausted, more so than asana, pranayama or meditation combined.

We break for lunch for 2 hours after this, which is just as well because we’re usually so spent that our brains can’t function.

There’s a few places nearby but I’ve been frequenting the same one for lunch.  A group of five of us gets together everyday and we set out for the 15 minute walk to this place.  You’d think we’d be tired of it but their food is spectacular and their menu varied enough for us to be able to try something new each time we go.  The one thing I always order is sweet lassi, a yogurt-like drink that goes a long way towards making very spicy food bearable and which is supposed to be good for the digestive system.  We usually use up every bit of those two hours eating here.  There’s no shortage of things to talk about with these folks.  Most of us come from completely different countries and many have traveled extensively.  BelgiumFranceChinaMexicoSpainTaiwanGreeceFinlandItalyRussiaGermanyAustriaSwedenCanadaSouth AfricaTrinidad and TobagoCubaEnglandIndonesia and the U.S. are all represented in this group.  And most are expats or immigrants.  The South African girl is actually Chinese.  The one from Trinidad and Tobago is Indian.  Of the Americans, one lives in Indonesia, one in Spain and one is homeless (by choice) and traveling the world.  One Mexican girl is China and the other is in Spain

When we return from lunch at 2p.m. it’s time for Introduction to Pranayama.  Half the class is devoted to lecture and the other half to putting the concepts that were lectured on to practice.  We always do some light asana in preparation for the pranayama practice.  The postures are mostly dynamic, which means that we inhale and exhale out of them multiple times, rarely staying in the posture more than a breath or two (this is in contrast to the static postures that we practice in Ashtanga, where we move into a pose and hold it for five to 25 breaths).  Unfortunately, without mats, the layout is always a bit of a mess and many of us, especially in the center of the room, end up getting in each other’s way and having to shuffle as we change postures.  Today I smacked Andrea on the head by mistake and she spent the next few rounds trying to coordinate with my movement so she didn’t get whacked again.  She eventually moved to the front of the class.

At 3p.m. we have Applications of Yoga with Kausthub Desikachar.  We’ve actually only had one session with him since he was traveling the first few days.  We were instead having Principles of Yoga repeated at this time slot.  The only lecture we’ve had with Kausthub left most of us slightly intimidated but everyone loved his style and sense of humor so we’ll see how this progresses.

At 3:50p.m. we break for tea and biscuits and head back up to the rooftop.  What is referred to here as “biscuits” is really cookies.  Some vanilla wafers and chocolate chip cookies but there’s also some weirder ones.  We had one cream filled cookie that has faces on either side: one happy and one looking completely messed up and rabid.  On Friday we had a bubblegum flavored cookie.  The moment I bit into it, I knew exactly what it was.  Unmistakable flavor of strawberry bubblegum.  It didn’t taste bad but there was something distinctly wrong about swallowing something that tasted like gum.  I had to share it with others.  I took a cookie over to Andrea, the Mexican living in China.  She works in market research and I thought she’d appreciate it.  She recognized it as well.  “I feel very strange swallowing it,” she told me.  “You’re not supposed to swallow gum.  Why would they do this?”  And then she followed it up with “Que barbaridad!” [How barbaric!]

We are always late to class from break because we get caught up in conversation.  But at 4:10 we’re supposed to be back in the classroom for Introduction to Other Yoga Texts, where we cover the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and The Bhagavad Gita (so far we haven’t touched the latter).  Another heavy note taking class but not as intense since we’re talking fairly straight forward ideas… at least so far.

We end the day with Introduction to Meditative Practices.  The class is specifically NOT referred to as Introduction to Meditation because in this school, meditation is not seen as something you can just DO.  It has to occur spontaneously (an idea I remember my teacher expressing a few times in class).  So what they focus on is facilitating the spontaneous occurrence of meditation via asana, pranayama and chanting practices.  The desks are moved out of the way, along with anything else that takes too much space so that we can do our asanas.  We’re still on the blankets, which are laid out to cover the room and barely overlap one another.  Those of us who happen to have our hands and feet on different blankets usually start to slip because the two blankets will start to slide in different directions so the first few minutes of practice are usually devoted to rearranging ourselves.  Then we sit for a few rounds of pranayama and always end with a few minutes of silence, to let the meditation occur if it’s going to.

By the time I’m headed back to my room, I’m pooped.  The temperatures have usually cooled quite a bit so that the 85 degrees the city withstands at the height of the day even in winter are only a memory.  In the evening I usually have just enough time to shower (which is seriously needed more from how much grime you pick up just walking around than from any practice we do at school), brush, study my notes and chat with family.  I don’t bother to eat since the starchy meals earlier in the day are usually still sitting in my stomach.

These are full days and, for better or worse, they feel like they’re flying by.


  1. Oreste, you are turning out some pretty prolific commentary for one whose days are so full already. And I love the way you write, so detailed and yet sprinkled with your insights and emotions, just like how I know you to be in person. And wonderful photos. Thank you so much for sharing this amazing and life-changing experience. I look forward to more posts from the heart of The Ridiculousness

  2. "meditation is not seen as something you can just DO. It has to occur spontaneously"... How I wish one day I get there.