It’s 3:45 in the morning, and it’s the mother f***ing mosquito that has woken me up, not my alarm. Fifteen minutes early. At 3:45 in the morning, after a couple of weeks, those fifteen minutes have become something that is precious. I am, needless to say, annoyed at this little bug, who seems to have developed a fondness for reckless flying close to sleeping ears.
Initially, when I decided to stay, I had thought it would be the getting up in the morning that I would come to regret. I thought about what it meant to stay in India, after being on the road again for eight months this year, both my children in tow, seeing birthdays and American Holidays pass in three different countries, our feet crusted with exploration, but ungrounded in permanence.
|This is why you do it really. I mean. We think we know what's going on and then we look outside and this guy is walking by. "Good morning madame." Well, good morning to you, too.|
Most of the time we stay somewhere just long enough to feel like we live there before the next thing moves us on. It is, as Bodhi has discovered, both a blessing and a curse. We aren’t tourists, we live in places too long. We aren’t residents, once we have routine, family and friends, we are unmooring and saying our goodbyes.
The rhythm of this strange life is stressful, but rewarding and beautiful for all of us. And at 3:45 in the morning, when the bug is in my ear and the wailing of morning prayers has started down the road and the sound of water offerings and kitchen noises has already begun, everything feels acutely unfamiliar. Sometimes in a traveler’s adventure kind of way, but this morning in particular I am feeling it in a deep, heart felt, longing to be home kind of a way.
|Longing to be home led me here... and this time when we leave, all of what we found at the end of this path (which was just a beginning) comes with us.|
We all go through it over the course of our journey. The boys feel is more often than I do, or they express it more acutely at least. But on the flip side, they’ve learned to surf, sung and danced and slept over at Essica and Neve’s house, saved and lost kittens, fed a baby tiger, learned to eat street food and know how to order dinner in four different languages.
I try to remember that as I take another swing at the mosquito, knowing it is futile, there has been one, just one, mosquito in our bedroom between the hours of 8pm and 5am every single night since we got here, and no amount of incense nor prostrations keeps this creature away. It is a test of patience and sleeping skills.
He is also a gift of sorts, I suppose. Not because I get an extra fifteen minutes to drink my coffee before heading to the Shala in the still-dark morning, but because he makes me voice the question that wants to come out so badly; “What am I DOING here?”
And it’s not HERE, in this location. It’s DOING. In general, what kind of choices am I making, how do I think this is going to turn out? Why in the world am I still here?
|In the strange, because it is unlike ours, in the different, in the same. There is a mass of humanity everywhere trying to make sense of it all. And we are in it, watching the sense making, working on our own.|
This morning, the mosquito revealed to me that I want to go home. The mosquito makes me want to run away. He is that powerful. He brings to the surface in those fragile hours when I haven’t got quite enough rest all the little stories that are sitting right under the surface. I am ready to disappoint, to cut and run. I want to wander into the next room and pour my heart out to someone, but we live alone. I wish for an emergency that would be a big enough excuse not to go to practice. I wish for a boss at Aspen who had said, “NO. Be home on this date or lose your job.” I wish the only affordable ticket home was tomorrow.
But none of that is the case. And the only reason I am feeling it is because the thing I want to run from is fear. Of myself and my worth and my capacity. I am in the middle, still and always but at the moment acutely, of transformation. As are most people who make the three month journey to Mysore. I didn’t know it would happen when I came here, and I didn’t come here for it to happen. I came here to pay my respects to my teacher’s teacher. I thought we’d make a pilgrimage. To pop in and out. I thought we’d come say hi.
|Transformation seems to come so easily for them, even as they long for familiarity, their realties warp more easily than mine does. They adapt, they embrace.|
About a week into our stay here, Bodhi began to practice. And then, Saraswathi, the 73 year old guru that Ethan, Bodhi and I are studying with walked by me, pointed at me and said, “You are doing full primary serial? You are going back by yourself tomorrow. Possible.” Two days after that, she asked me to stay and assist her in the shala.
This is an enormous honor. Something that people wait for years for. Other than Bodhi climbing on her lap and kissing her after every practice, we didn’t have a lot tying us together, other than her faith in my broken body.
After about two weeks of wondering if that is what she actually asked me, and getting some translation from her then current assistant, I realized it was real, she wanted me to assist, along with three other very competent long time practitioners. It would take four of us to replace David, who would be leaving December 1. David is 70 years old and had been a student of Saraswathi’s father, Sri. K. Pataabi Jois, for 36 years. I would begin tomorrow.
As I was nodding yes, all kinds of wonderings about deserving came up. I questioned her sanity. I questioned my competence, I worried about other yoga students more deserving and more qualified than myself. I worried about my kids staying in India for another month, I worried about my job at home, which I love and miss, and my family and friends at home, and I worried about whether this choice would undo everything I’ve worked for or somehow help me along my path.
“Well, you don’t really have a choice, do you?” My friend, Kieran said. “You kind of have to stay, don’t you?” I knew he was right.
This morning, those wonderings are louder than usual. Being “trained up” by Saraswathi consists of showing up every morning and wondering if I’m actually helping. She has a fondness for shouting “No, no, NO!” across the room. “Hand is NOT correct.” She will say. She calls you by the name you are in, “Kormasana foot is not correct.” or the posture that your student is in.
|Evenings are stretching for Dewi Pada, rolling of old stiff muscles and broken bones, daily prayers, practices, contemplations, tea, snuggles and early bed for all of us.|
She calls her Senior assistant, Jessica, by her name. She calls my son, Bodhi, by his name. Everyone else is “Bujipidasana” or “You”. I imagine this must be what it was like to be trained up by Cal Cantrell on the ski field. I think of Squatty and Weems. I think of Michael Hickey. I think of my figure skating coach.
Every day I have been entering the shala wondering if she regrets asking me and really doesn’t want me to help or find me that helpful, every day I have to step over that and into my competency, trusting her choice and doing the job she has given me as well as I can do it. I am an empty vessel. I am an empty vessel. I am on receive, I am a beginner, I am listening.
At first it was hard to know if she was talking to me, or to the student I was adjusting. Eventually I realized that when she calls out “NO!” and comes over and takes the student from you, she is teaching you how she wants it done. She teaches the student what to do, and your job is to stand and watch her teach the student, thereby learning how the adjustment should be done.
There are instances which occur where I am told “No, you don’t do it like that.” And where she then uses the same technique I was told not to use on the next person.
|I kind of want to feel like this for her, like I've got it. I'm a cat on a unicorn, I've got it harnessed. But that's not what she needs, and its probably not realistic anyway, as awesome as it would be...|
When I feel this desire to attach to the thought that I am useless and be rescued from it by some clue from her that she is glad to have me, I realize that is my ego, this is a klesha, this is wrong thinking, this is in the way.
I am an empty vessel. I need to be open, I need to be listening. I literally open my eyes wider. I don’t look to her, I look around the room and try to find the thing that I know I can help. I am aware I’ve been standing still too long. I want to be useful, but my job is not to hurry, but to be accurate.
Maybe she shows me the same adjustment that she tells me not to give for a reason. Maybe there is a nuance I am missing. Like when Jonathan tells me I’m still twisting my ski before I tip it on my turn to the right, even though I can’t feel it. Maybe I need to let go of wanting to be good at this and just learn. Or maybe it will eventually be okay for me to use that adjustment technique on someone, but I need to use a different one first, or understand more first, or touch more bodies first.
|Bodhi decides to go deep for a while, I came in while he was waiting for his chai. Who knows if he is flying space ships in his mind or visiting his own internal galaxy, he is pretty chill, and that's a good place to be.|
Its hot in the room, there are maybe 30 people per batch, and there are four batches practicing. I practice in the second batch and assist the last two. The other assistants practice early and are already assisting when I crack the door open while its still dark outside.
Saraswathi has been playing with Asana since she was five years old. She has been assisting her father since she was 17, and teaching on her own since she was 35. She has laid her hands on over 800,000 bodies if she touched everyone in her room every day, and by extension of her assistants, who are hand picked and trained up by her, she has.
I reach in my mind for the ability to let go of attachment to needing this to be about me. What does Saraswathi want? She doesn’t need an ego. She needs an extra pair of hands. She needs me to be who she needs me to be. To be standing in front of the person when they stand up for Uttita Hasta. To know the names of the postures, the order they are in, to be able to speak in these terms instantly.
“You. How much you know? How many asanas you are doing?” This is Kanata for “How long have you been practicing yoga and how far in the series have you gone before coming here?”.
|They get to sleep till 8. I'm not jealous. I chose this. (Just keep telling yourself that...)|
All of this is coming again this morning, and today for the first time since I began, I don’t want to go through the exhausting exercise of stepping over my fear, doing the work on myself so I can be clean, open and present for her and her students.
I put the water on for coffee, and go get in the cold shower, which we are lucky to have as many folks just use a bucket and a pail. The shower head is thoughtfully aimed for the top of the average Indian person’s head, and so hits me squarely between the shoulders.
I’m waking up. The longing is still in there. I want to run away. I don’t want to have to show up. Oh, that’s what it is. When I’m not assisting, I can be sick, I can be sore, I can be only about me. Now, I’ve made a commitment. And because Saraswathi shows up every single day, so do I. She is teaching me.
I dry off, mad at myself that I took this on. Did I have it to give? Did I know what it would mean? I’ve had jobs before where you have to show up. I’ve been through ski exams with fevers and selections fresh out of surgery, but those were directly related to gain. My own personal gain.
This is a dark, sweaty, silent room. This is about giving. Giving myself to her so that she can have some small rest, and giving myself to the students so they can practice more. There is no prize, award, certificate. There were two days in a row where she didn’t correct me, and I couldn’t tell if it was because she found me hopeless or because I was doing it right. Those two days were useful for letting go of fear and doing the best I could do until I heard otherwise.
I think about what Ethan said as we drove up the road to the Shala in Bali about three weeks after he started this July. “Mom, when does yoga end?” Ah… well, never. It doesn’t end. And it won’t get any easier. It will change, and your relationship and purpose for Asana will change, but the yoga doesn’t end.
I pour the coffee into the french press and pull on my leggings. Apparently, we are going to yoga. I watch my body go through the preparations.
|There is an origin to ritual, a discipline created by sincere repetition, a commitment by clarity of mind. This is true in all religions and practices. Somewhere it often becomes dogma. My duty is to stay connected. Here and on the mat.|
I light the incense and look at the Buddha. I let my raging human mind run for a moment, watching what it wants to attach to: still wanting to run, still stirred so easily by wanting to be at home, where I don’t have a fever, wanting to be in a clean place with good sanitation, wanting to feel stable, wanting to feel held, wanting to be with the friends in my life who are loading the lift in Aspen and getting ready to celebrate Christmas… my god, what am I doing way over here in India?
I wait, watching, and then I enter the ritual. This is new, also. I have taken refuge in the teachings of the Buddha, I have committed to a teacher, and I have promised to cary out daily prayers and practices. I have been waiting for this for a long, long time. The ritual is new. The practice is not. I say my prayers, a strange thing to do after so many years of resisting the idea of praying. I focus on the words of my teacher, on the words of the prayer as I stumble over another new language, my tongue trips on the Tibetan words, but they don’t sound strange to me. The bells are ringing in the hindu temple outside.
I prostrate myself, strange after so many years of worrying about idolatry. I feel my teacher in my heart again, guiding me through the minefield of the past and into the quiet, I embrace my new understanding. I say thank you to Geshele, to Lekden for helping me understand. I feel better, connected. The fear and longing are right there, but from an observable distance. I smile at myself, I asked for this. I went to teacher training. I asked Paul how to navigate my future, I asked Dylan how to find a teacher. I did what they said. And here we are, and these can either be thumb screws of intensity or they can be what happens when you put yourself in the fire of change. You feel the tapas, the work. And you let it mould you. You do not douse the fire, you do not run away.
The coffee is ready. I feel better about drinking it since Saraswathi told me to feed it to Ethan in the morning. Apparently Guruji used to feed it to Sharath, her son, when he was thirteen and lazy.
|But also curious, willing, open, connected...|
I roll out my hamstrings, which feel just as tight as they did five years ago even though I can put my leg behind my head now, so they must be much looser. I sit in the cold, institutional green of our Indian apartment, surrounded by instructions taped to the discolored cement telling us to turn off the lights and the fans, and begin to breathe. The pressure of want, the attachment to my desire to go home eases.
Pranayama is a practice that my teacher Paul gifted us with. My experience with it is interesting, my world dissolves when I begin, I feel like I go very far inward to a calm, expansive place where fear is observable differently than it is from a contemplative place. It looks like a blip on the vata read out of my breath, and then it smooths, and disappears because the breath, the connection, is more powerful than my mind is.
I stand up, my knees are achy, an hour and a half on the cold floor. I’ve made it through my preparations, and every morning when I stand up I realize they are truly cleansing. I feel like I have washed my body, my mind, from fear. I haven’t even left the apartment yet. I kiss the boys, my Indian friend Pradeep will show up on his tricked out super bike later and wake them, feed them chai and bring them to the shala. It’s only 5:45, they don’t leave till 8:15.
And then I go to practice, coasting down the hill in the dark on my bike, the street dogs are out, the women are making water offerings and salt drawings on the driveways, the streetlights are still on, the sky is just turning pink.
|This is Lekden's favorite street dog. He survives and shows up even when Lekden is sure he has had it this time. I haven't got mange, I've got all my hair, and food to eat. I can show up. For her, for them and for me.|
The coconut man is sitting with a knit cap on, only one person has finished and is drinking. She looks like she just came out of a swimming pool. I walkup the stairs and wade through a field of flip flops left outside her door. I can hear the breathing from here. Most days I reach for the handle of the door with gratitude, once I’m through the gate and mounting the stairs, I’m already in it.
The mosquito was powerful today, I wonder what my practice will be like. I wonder if she will judge my worth for assisting by the power of my practice. Since I have spent the last three and a half weeks recovering from Dengue fever, my practice has come and gone in strength as the fever waxes and wanes. I’m foolish to worry, it’s been three weeks, and she hasn’t fired me yet. I love this woman, I realize, as I pull open the door.
The dim lights are on, the oil lamps are burning on the altar, the bodies are drenched in sweat and twisted into the advanced postures of the intermediate series, or folded deeply into the most athletic portion of the primary series. I squeeze through the bodies, like a Rube Goldberg machine that’s already in motion, kicked off by sitting up in bed this morning, there is no stopping now.
I roll out my mat and glance at the clock, still wondering how my body will feel once it is truly moving. Will it be a strong practice? A tough practice? Ritual takes its place again and hands come to heart. I close my eyes. “Vande gurunam…”
And then the first sun salutation, and again everything stops. There is the breath and the immediate relief of movement. My body begins to feel alive in a very essential, elemental way. I don’t care what anyone thinks of my practice, each breath wraps around each movement and each movement is for healing my body. I’m grateful when the anonymous hands appear and help, but I don’t expect them. I am inside. A piece of me files that away for when I step into the role of assisting later. I don’t even know they are there. I’m not wishing for them. They are forces like gravity breath and bhanda, they are grace in the midst of practice.
It turns out to be a “good” one. Why did I want to run away again? I roll up my mat and go into the spare bedroom to do the finishing postures. People are practicing in her office. I sit up for breathing, I wonder momentarily as I fall inside, deep into my sacrum and my spinal column, as I disappear down the rabbit hole and dissolve just for ten breaths, what I was running from? Was it the power of change? The quiet fly wheel spinning for everyone in this room?
I change my clothes and step back into the room and watch for a moment. It is silent from this perspective, but I have compassion for the noise and story going on inside each head in that room, punctuated by moments that can feel eternal of blissful silence.
What is needed? How can I be helpful? All I hear is breathing, because the sound of my own instruction to myself, the voices of my teachers in my practice, the voice of judgement and the teacher removing that judgement are sleeping now. There is the sound of breath, and the gentle plop of feet as they jump back and through back and through 120 times in their two hours.
I let go again and wrap my arms around a body in the shape of a triangle where someone is peeking around the corner rather than rolling up and open. I fall into assisting, aware that she is watching, aware that I am being “trained up”, and I straddle the line between doing what I know and knowing that I don’t know anything.
I am a beginner in Saraswathis world, I am a beginner as a human. I am a beginner as a Buddhist, I am a beginner. And that’s what the mosquito was trying to whisper in my ear. It’s hard to be a beginner, there’s lots to learn, it takes a lot of effort. It’s easy to rest on the security that you are valued and know what you are doing.
Today, I am grateful to the mosquito. He was right all along.