51 Breaths

Dear Journal,

I'm in India!

Arriving in Bangalore I am greeted by Ravi, a taxi driver whom I have known for several years. There is something settling in being greeted by a familiar face when so far away from home. It is 4:30 a.m. but it feels like midday from the activity at the airport. Heading toward the car and into the cool morning I comment on the weather being cold. Ravi replies, “Not hot madam, medium temperature.”

As we make our way along the Bangalore-Mysore road the one thing in my mind is starting practice again with my teacher. The traffic is surprisingly heavy as we pass oversized billboards and tour from one side of the road to the other. In a way the Bangalore motorway is a kind of analogy for practice. There are clear parts, troubled areas, challenges and continual disturbances. The honking horns (an accepted protocol in India) are like the endless fluctuations or vrittis that enter the mind during practice.

Returning to my teacher is a check-ín point as to where I am in the scale of practice. However, over the last few years the physical practice is not under inspection but something far beyond. My teacher Yogacharya whom I have studied regularly with for 11 years now is not one for judging the external practice (i.e., how far you bend or twist). In fact many years ago his first comment after watching me practice was on how my the practice is too external. (Is that an oxymoron?) It's hard to fathom what these Acharya´s mean and I dare not ask too many questions for fear of looking like I am too busy mentally. What he looks for is how yoga works on you mentally. Last year I received a severe tongue lashing when I was told I have been doing only "bodily exercise but nothing on the mind."

Going to practice under my teacher also keeps the practice on par. Am I just trying to accomplish more asanas? Do I identify my progress with the physical result? Can I challenge myself to remember the ultimate connection between the body and mind? What effect is the pose having mentally? And moreover, who do I think is driving the practice my body or mind? Is it both? Who came first? For Yogacharaya all is clear. He does not ask the questions. He makes the statement, “It is all mind.” And for him there are no arguments.

Several years ago when conferences were given on Saturday afternoon Yogacharya spoke about satisfying only the physical. Stating how the practice is too physically driven points out how we might be going in circles and not penetrating the deeper regions of the soul. It is repeatedly mentioned in the Yoga Sutras, a text written 2,000 years ago, that the practice will not be understood by the asanas alone. And yet the third rung out of the eight limbs is a huge step to move beyond since we are human beings living in a material world and dealing with the physical body all the time. So what can we do?

Something that has eluded many Western practitioners is stepping beyond bodily activity and working on the fluctuations of mind through the asanas (Paul Brunton, A Search of Secret India, 1934). This sort of practice usually starts by focusing readily on holding a posture longer and watching the breath. While this may seem like an uncomplicated approach it is the method for which real Yogis practice. What I mean by real is the theoretical and the practical dilemma between preyas and shreyas yoga. That is yoga for physical pleasure or yoga for the purpose of enlightenment. And this is a genuine conflict concerning all serious practitioners, students, scholars and teachers of yoga (Georg Feuerstein, The Lost Teachings of Yoga, 2003).

Yogacharaya´s teachings today are more centred on the internal base than it ever was. I sometimes get the feeling he only taught the physical asanas as a way to gather a few students; some having dropped off while others continue to go further with this understanding. Even new students are initiated more readily into the internal focus method. But for Yogacharya I have no doubt this has been the focus all the time anyway. His ways are not of the typical teacher. He will not applaud your efforts and he will not unnecessarily please a student (the same thing). He might even tell you to do self-practice and point out where you are blocked mentally.

Over the course of several week or months only a few postures are practised, which can seem monotonous and perhaps to the point of boredom. It is not the fashionable way that yoga has slowly been moulded in physical achievement. Yogacharaya has not given in and demands the tradition is maintained. Having travelled in this direction with him and trusting the process the one thing I know is that holding postures for over 30 continuous breathings and focusing on less asanas is more difficult than running through 50 postures with each being held at 5 breaths.

When I enter the doors of the kutira (a hut constructed for the practices of Yoga) I will be flooded by memories of previous practices, my teacher and all that Yoga stands for.

We are still on the Bangalore-Mysore road, which seems like a never-ending line of construction. Hm, it is so much like practice! And given the amount of reckless driving it is somewhat of a miracle to not have an accident. I am reminded of what Iyengar once wrote in that it is not yoga’s fault if there are accidents (re: injuries), but rather the aggression of the student (The Tree of Yoga, 1988). Even though the highway will end soon the practice of course does not. It is a continual journey for which I am grateful for in building, rebuilding and to a large degree dismantling the mental agitations and fluctuations.

Because at the 51st breath I am indeed ready to take a pit-stop. And for now this has to be Mysore.

Note: There is no significance to holding a yoga posture for exactly 51 breaths. It is a marker in which 10 breaths are done in 1 minute. Holding a posture for 5 minutes is a starting point toward a therapeutic approach and need, not one for physical ascetics but internal endurance. Breathing less and more deeply is a central aim of many ancient Yogis in which life is not calculated by one's years but one's breath. Because of the stresses of modern life people often breathe too rapidly and harshly. Less breathing is understood as increasing one's life span and well-being.

Notes from Abroad

Dear Journal,

I'm in Mysore.....ahhhhh

Being in the Motherland of inspiration, India possesses ‘something’ that most people who travel here can truly understand. In my old beaten up copy of the Lonely Planet there is a brief introduction on traveller’s either loving or hating India; many swearing never to return again. A more accurate travel advisory, however, would read that India is both: the great adventure in challenging your comfort levels and capturing your heart.

Certainly a country like India is not without its challenges. The poverty and the pollution are just some of them; juxtaposed with incredible beauty and historic reverie. For me, these are the reasons why I need to return to India. That is, challenging my tolerance for the hectic and chaotic but above all to renew my spirit and my belief in it. The mountain range and an Indian child's face do not look different. India has always promised to provide reminders of the terrible (e.g., homelessness and poverty) as well as the wonderful (e.g, temples and palaces). It is like a cross-reference experience in getting to know and experience extremes.

My attraction for India grew solely out of my interest in yoga. Yet over the years it has become an equal drive to know both better. This fall marked another study trip to Mysore, India; the home of my primary teacher Yogacharya Venkatesha and the place where much of what we understand as being Ashtanga yoga evolved. While in India I am happy to become a student again as well as a wandering wilbury. Taking the time to learn more about India; her people, the customs and whatever else I can indulge in is a daily adventure. Visiting the temples, palaces, historic sites and museums is all part of this as well. But I truly believe that engaging with the people and being open to whatever 'unique' circumstances arise has had more lessons than being guided through a 12th century temple. In other words, it is the person telling me about the temple not the temple itself that is worth spending time with.

My India or rather 'my kind' of India is best understood from the list below of interactions with some of the local people in Mysore. Surprisingly enough it is also not wrapped around the yoga kutira. As I said, it is the 'locals' and my interactions with them from buying dinner, shopping in the market to getting in a rickshaw.

Various Conversations

~ I order papad (a flat crispy bread like a chip) and get tandoori fish!

~ I ask to speak with another clerk at the hotel's front desk who speaks better English. The response is, “You want the wine list, mam?”

~ I rent a scooter and every 2-3 days receive a phone call from the vendor which goes something like this:

“Hello, madam, any problems? Any problems madam you just call me. Any problems.”

While in Mysore the seat lock breaks. We make arrangements for him to come the following day but he never shows up. The next day I get another call (repeat the line above).

~ I am 75 rupees short when buying a gift at the market. The vendor agrees with me that I can come back in an hour to pay. Be aware, he has never seen me before, does not know my name or where I am staying. He doesn't ask. He flashes only an unspoken look of, "Can I trust this person?"

~ In the local shops it is a common courtesy to be offered chai (tea) especially if you are a paying or potential customer.

~ I repair my shoe heel for $1 dollar. THe cobbler marks the price in pen on the sole of the shoe. While waiting the police officer stops to ask, "What country you?" and the cobbler demands, "You take foto."

~ I have a silver key chain welded in 10 minutes for 10 rupees (approx. 25 cents).

~ I spend several minutes exchanging clumsy arm and hand movements with one of the Muslim washers regarding when and where I can pick up my clothes.

~ The waiters at a local restaurant exclaim:

“You come long back. When you come now exactly?”

This is nice, really nice and I forget about the black toilets at the back.

~ “Did you have your breakfast?” “Had your lunch?” "How is your mother?”

A random set of questions from hotel staff, clerks, vendors and even strangers on teh street passing by.

~ A fellow motorist informs me there are police officers checking for people who are not wearing their helmets. I stop to put on the helmet and am grateful for the warning.

~ This year I learn what should have been the first lesson last on scooter driving. That is, how to lift the scooter up and onto the stand. I am a good laugh for the teacher who doubles as a bell-boy at the hotel.

"After 10 years you learn the first at the end."

Truly the best, however, can only be summed up by a photo not through words.

The jumbo elephants are finishing their practice for the upcoming festival of Dasara in October. Walking elegantly down the road in a single moment they epitomize all that India offers for a foreigner. That is, something of an open-air zoo in the middle of downtown Mysore. In order not to miss this I actually ran down to the center at the same time I knew they would be passing by.

Ah, India... it is always better expressed in a photo.

The Journey So Far

Life is an adventure and yoga is the greatest one of all. Here I share my love of Yoga, travel, practice and becoming a part-time cook. My life adventures have taken me from growing up in Toronto to living and working in South Korea to studying in India, marriage and finally closing my Yoga school of 15 years.

What I can say so far is that I truly believe that it is necessary in life to let go of one dream in order for another to be born. This might be painful to do so but it is the only way to move forward. We often believe that if our original plan does not succeed it is the recipe for failure. But what if it is the door to something new and great? The horizon is wide and life is not a straight line. This is the way I see it and my journey so far. Having also recently given birth to my first child and at 43, it is another new beginning.


My Photo
Heather Morton
is a perennial teacher and devoted student of yoga. Having made 18 extended trips to India she studies with her teachers annually. In 1997 she founded and directed The Yoga Way (TYW), Toronto's only school for 6-week yoga programs and not drop-in classes. For 15 years, TYW was a part of the growing Toronto yoga community and supported many charities by offering karma classes. As a teacher she holds many academic degrees including a BFA (Fine Arts in Theatre) and a Masters of Education. With a published thesis on Yoga for Children in School, her post-graduate work was a 2-year ethnographic project in the Indian school system. Heather has produced 2 dvds, meditation cds, a backbending manual and podcasts. Freedom of the Body DVD is the first of its kind as an instructional practice to the backbends of yoga. Heather has been featured in the Toronto Life magazine, The Globe & Mail, Yoga4Everybody and other on-line sources. She contributes to MindBodyGreen, Hello Yoga in Japan and Elephant Journal. She writes to inspire and share her experiences with others on yoga as a life's practice.
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