There’s been something funny in the air in Mysore this time round. I’d thought it was just me, but after conference today I got a sense this was something collective.
Though its not as though I can really compare. This is my second visit to Mysore. The last time I came was three years ago. It is more a sense that people seem to believe there’s something markedly different about practicing in the shala now. Nostalgic attachments to the way things were are nothing new. Even I who was blissfully naive to the Ashtanga world on my first trip – I had no idea what Kino McGregor was – was never too far from a complaint on the changing atmosphere of practicing in Mysore.
And now Sharath is reflecting these themes back to us. After all he has the best vantage point of us all. That’s why he’s sat talking about the ones who just ‘pass through’, the ones who want the photo moment and the instagrammed asana (Sleepless I searched #kpjayi on instagram last night, it was a waking nightmare).
If last weeks conference didn’t make us cringe enough when the first hand to go up asks how he gets authorised; this week a question – that seemed to come from a place of genuine confusion – asked should we still come here if we don’t want to become teachers, i.e. leaving space for those on the authorisation ladder. When Sharath just looked and said ‘I don’t know what you are talking about’, didn’t we all feel small then realising it was just our own stuff after all. That we have to all take responsibility for our own elbows when we’re at the gates before led practice. That we are creating this, not Sharath or anyone else. And that this is a collective responsibility. There’s no point abdicating responsibility elsewhere.
Personally it’s my instinct when people get aggressive to retreat, so much so I got told off by my fellow 6.30 waiting group, who literally pushed me into the shala the other morning, “You’re always so slow!”. What’s the the happy medium on the passive/aggressive scale??
I suppose that here (this is a presumption from my own limited means of tuning into the collective energy) there’s lots of people who are wanting to be seen, by Sharath, to be validated, recognised, authorised. It’s not that I don’t get the desire to be seen by one’s teacher but Mysore for me is a place to come to disappear. In the shala I’m a zero. This lesson disturbs me as much as anyone else. It shows itself up in a fat complex, repulsive skin rashes, compulsive shopping, blocked sinuses.
On the conscious level I’ve been spending a lot of time asking myself the reason why I wanted to come here. I’ve been getting caught up in the idea that I needed a purpose to be here other than the practice. After all in order to get here I had to sell Mysore to my PhD supervisors: I’ll have so much time to write! Think how productive I will be! And persuade an unconvinced Director of Post Grad studies in my faculty: “This is what we’ll call an informal arrangement”. I had to move out of my rented room and become homeless again. I put my belongings into an airing cupboard and said goodbyes to friends, lover, cat. Sometimes the act of leaving becomes such a big deal you feel you need to return with something to show for it. But what can I tell people but to say actually Mysore is an incubator for madness. It’s not going to make me productive in any productive sense. I might evolve but only sideways. I won’t get a shiny teaching certificate, or ‘find myself’. I won’t be instagramming asana porn from a beach, I probably won’t be getting any new postures and might just be plodding through primary for the duration. I will get lots of itchy insect bites though and inconvenient tanlines. I’ll return with dodgy intestines and dirty feet, sunburnt nose and clothes destroyed from bucket washing.
It’s hard to explain why the practice is an end in itself. Because its not something that can be explained in language, only direct experience. It too can feel hard to keep concentrating on that even here where desires are strong and confused and often ambivalent. Where we’re all a bit confused about where we stand in relation to one another, to Sharath, to the practice, to the lineage, to India. Because you can come to Mysore and not change at all. You can surf on the bubble and never get taken over by it all. You can come and get what you want and a vegan pancake and pass on through.
Before I read the Yoga Sutras I was reading Sociology. It was Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault and Gayatri Spivak that taught me that ‘I’ was only a composite of networks of power, dispositions and that before I could speak I had to unlearn my privilege as loss.
In my brief forays into the Ashtanga/yoga blogosphere, in between the lines I read a lot concerning positionality; confusion and criticism about unexamined western romanticism and privilege. There’s plenty of violence to be done, and is done, and that’s evident in the trivial: from not covering our female flesh in India and Om tattoos, to cultural appropriation and ignorance. We are all ignorant so long as we’re trying to speak in a language we haven’t taken the time to learn.
And then last night I was reminded how violence is universal, and that although in one schema I may hold privilege, in another I’m just a body upon which violence (specifically gendered) can be enacted.
I was walking home, it was 9pm and I was mere moments away from where I live in Gokulam. Before I understood what was happening a hand grabbed my breast. The sensation was so unexpected I gasped. A strange noise passed my lips as I looked up to see a young boy on a bicycle peddling away muttering something.
I am certainly not naive to the gross gender inequalities that exist in India. Nor am I naive of its complex and perplexing views on sexuality and masculinity. Further still I am highly aware as a (white) woman in India objectification happens on a daily basis. I’ve been grabbed in all the usual places, followed by groups of men, harassed by rickshaw drivers, touched inappropriately by a security guard, mistaken for a prostitute. And if I need to clarify: I’m always covered from neck to ankle in India (I wasn’t asking for it).
Yet there was something about the mundanity of last nights encounter that it took everything to carry the sadness round the corner to my house so I could just get behind a door and sink. Such invasion of space and one’s body is never acceptable but I felt I was pretty wise to it, be sensible, cover yourself, that’s just how things are. Perhaps it was the youth of my perpetrator, perhaps because I was so close to home, perhaps because I’d spent too long looking at Gokulam with a rose-tint it came and grabbed me back to reality.
In between the tears I wondered how to account for the situation, with violence going both sides, where education is lacking and ignorance is growing. A situation where even when you cover those shoulders you’re still on object. How did I become an object? And what are ‘they’ (male, other, Indian) to me? How can we get to a situation where we can see each other clearly?
Being a student of Ashtanga in Mysore is a practice as good as any for a bodily understanding of what it means to unlearn your privilege as loss. Being here is where you do your homework.
I will have in an undergraduate class, let’s say, a young, white, male student, politically-correct, who will say: “I am only a bourgeois white male, I can’t speak.” In that situation – it’s peculiar, because I am in the position of power and their teacher and, on the other hand, I am not a bourgeois white male – I say to them: “Why not develop a certain degree of rage against the history that has written such an abject script for you that you are silenced?” Then you begin to investigate what it is that silences you, rather than take this very deterministic position – since my skin colour is this, since my sex is this, I cannot speak. I call these things, as you know, somewhat derisively, chromatism: basing everything on skin colour – “I am white, I can’t speak” – and genitalism: depending on what genitals you have, you can or cannot speak in certain situations.
From this position, then, I say you will of course not speak in the same way about the Third World material, but if you make it your task not only to learn what is going on there through language, through specific programmes of study, but also at the same time through a historical critique of your position as the investigating person, then you will see that you have earned the right to criticize, and you will be heard. When you take the position of not doing your homework – “I will not criticize because of my accident of birth, the historical accident” – that is a much more pernicious position.
In one way you take a risk to criticize, of criticizing something which is Other – something which you used to dominate. I say that you have to take a certain risk: to say “I won’t criticize” is salving your conscience, and allowing you not to do any homework. On the other hand, if you criticize having earned the right to do so, then you are indeed taking a risk and you will probably be made welcome, and can hope to be judged with respect.
Gayatri Spivak (1990) The Postcolonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Routledge: London, p62-3.