Chasing Tigers, Poking Cobras - A Yoga Blog

How I Got Here

The term yoga teacher is shrouded in mystique.  This air of the mysterious springs forth from the fountain of the vague.   It is virtually impossible to judge the qualifications of a yoga teacher through their bio, often the only thing a prospective yoga student has to go on.  It is all too common for these bios to leave out dates, circumstance, and location in favor of allusion.  Terms like senior teacher, teacher’s teacher, expert, specialist, certified, and teacher trainer litter the websites of yoga studios across the globe.  “My humble thanks to my teachers x, y, z, q, w, m, and t for their wisdom and guidance.”  Sound familiar? 

Yoga Teacher Training is certainly no guarantee of qualification.  The Yoga Alliance Standards (on which 90% of Teacher Trainings are built) haven’t been updated in 17 years!  Moreover the Standards are not enforced.  I do not know of a single studio in New York City that fact checks their teachers’ bios.  As far as my own lineage goes, that of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as it was taught by K. Pattabhi Jois, we do not typically have teacher trainings, so it is hard to judge our qualifications even by the subpar and disregarded Standards of the Yoga Alliance.  I have written the following blog in an effort to become more transparent about my own education in yoga.  Hopefully it will shed some light on my ideas, opinions, and methods and from whence they come.  This is not an exhaustive piece by far; there are many things that I have left out.  There are also parts that may seem to go off topic; I have included them because I feel they influenced me in some way (or possibly for a small bit of humor so that you are encouraged to continue reading).  Throughout the blog and in the postscriptum I give a few short opinions and observations – these all stem from my direct personal experience.  I hope you will enjoy my little meander down memory lane.

Yoga teachers are human, just like everyone else.  They can be a source of great support.  They can be a source of great disappointment.  They can be a source of great wisdom.

 Laxmipuram, Mysore, India

Laxmipuram, Mysore, India

Let it be known!  I am a Level 2 Authorized Ashtanga Teacher.  I am a Registered Yoga Teacher with the Yoga Alliance at the Experienced 500 hour level.

Slow and steady wins the race.  There is no race.

I began the practice of Ashtanga Yoga in 2007.  This was after three years doing consistent practice of Bikram Yoga, though never in a studio with the name Bikram on it, and Vinyasa Yoga.  I started ashtanga because the studio where I was to do my first teacher training, the now closed Yoga Sutra near Bryant Park in NYC, offered the practice and if you paid for the training in advance you were given free classes at the studio from that date until the end of training.  I began my Mysore Style practice in a non-traditional way, having either been misinformed by a member of the staff at the studio or having misinterpreted what the staff member said, I really cannot be sure which.  I took four Led Ashtanga classes, two of which were Full Primary Series and two of which were Half Primary Series (up to navasana), and from there took it upon myself to memorize the series.  I went to my first Mysore Style class expecting to do the entire Primary Series and that is exactly what I did.  The teacher was quite gracious and I think a bit amused and allowed me to continue with the entire Primary Series.  Several months later I was asked to do the first pose of Intermediate Series.  This came as quite a shock as I had no idea there was anything called Intermediate Series.

The first “pains” I got from practicing ashtanga were in my wrists – they were dull and achy, but disconcerting.  I consulted with my teacher and was told they would go away with time and practice.  They did and I have never had wrist pain since.  The second pains I got were in my knees, which is not surprising as padmasana positions were something I’d ignored for virtually all of my yoga life so far.  These pains were also dull, but far more intense than the wrist pain.  Again, I consulted with my teacher and we made some changes to how I went about my asanas and vinyasas.  It took some months, but eventually the knee pain eased and I have not had knee pain since.

I completed my 200hr Teacher Training under the direction of Christopher Hildebrandt (also my second ashtanga teacher, his sister was my first) at Yoga Sutra in February of 2008 and began teaching a few classes publically (I still held a full time office job) by April.  This began a period of three years when I worked seven days a week. 

200hr Yoga Alliance Registered Teacher Training
approx. $2,300
about 6 months in length

Yoga Alliance dues
$55 per year

It was during my 200hr training that I met and studied with Srivatsa Ramaswami, the longest standing student of T. Krishnamacharya outside of the teacher’s immediate family.  Over the next three years I would have the great pleasure to study vinyasa krama, pranayama, and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali with him several more times.  Mr. Ramaswami is an extremely humble and learned man and my brief studies with him have left a lasting impression on me.   

I took at 100hr Core Fusion Hot Yoga Teacher Training sometime after my 200hr training.  The details are a bit fuzzy on this one.  I took it to get more work at a studio where I was already teaching that had hot yoga offerings.  There’s a lot of pay to play in the yoga biz.  If people really knew what the typical yoga teacher earns per class they would take it upon themselves to put out tip jars and collect spare change for their instructors.   

100hr Core Fusion Hot Yoga Teacher Training
approx.. $700 (I got a large discount for teaching at the studio)
I do not recall the length of time

Trust between teacher and student is essential to the learning process.  Trust is earned by the teacher from the student over a period of time.  Trust can be lost at anytime.

I began my 300hr Advanced Teacher Training, again at Yoga Sutra, in 2009.  This is also when I met John Campbell and Kimberly “Kiki” Flynn, both direct students of K. Pattabhi Jois, who would become my ashtanga teachers for several years.  It was at some point in 2009 when one of the ashtanga assistants reached out to me because Kimberly had expressed a need for an assistant in the Mysore room and he thought I would be capable.  I presented myself to Kimberly and she accepted me as her assistant.  The agreement was that I would practice with John in the morning and then come to assist her Monday through Thursday after I finished at the office for two hours each evening.  Friday I would practice Primary Series with her in the evening.  The first instruction Kimberly gave me as her assistant was,  “we use our words first and our hands second.”  Communicate with the students.  Assisting in a Mysore room is physical demanding, mentally taxing, and can be emotionally demeaning.   As the assistant you are the lowest of the low:  the student is not expected to know and so they are innocent, the teacher knows more than you and is respected, so all problems stem from you.  I have been forced to apologize to people who did not deserve an apology because, in Kimberly’s own words, “it is our job to be the bigger people.”  I was told to ask people to, “please come again tomorrow,” though, were it up to me, I would want to never see them again in my lifetime.  My physical practiced suffered when I started to assist which is only natural, it is a great deal more physical effort that has been added to each day.

K. Pattabhi Jois passed away in 2009.  I never met him.  I went to two memorial services for him in NYC, one small and one quite large.  Both were beautiful, heartfelt, welcoming, and moving.

I completed my 300hr Advanced Teacher Training under the direction of Guta Hedewig in January of 2010.  During this training I met and studied with Dr. Edwin Bryant, an Indologist and professor of religions of India at Rutgers University, Chase Bossart, a direct student of TKV Desikachar, and Dr. Satyanarayana Dasa, an Indian Gaudiya Vaisnava scholar.  Due to a reorganizing of my 300hr training I was allowed to attend any lectures in the next 300hr Teacher Training at Yoga Sutra for free.  I took full advantage of this and was able to study with these fine teachers again.

300hr Yoga Alliance Registered Advanced Teacher Training
approx.. $3,000
around 10 months in length

If my recollection serves me well, and it is quite possible that it does not, John left Yoga Sutra sometime in late 2009 or early 2010 to teach at the Upper West Side location of Pure Yoga.  I remained at Yoga Sutra with Kimberly until she also left.  There was a short period of time when Kimberly hosted a Mysore Style program at a small studio near Times Square called Prana Mandir.  I continued to study with her there, always arriving early due to my teaching schedule and therefore often receiving about half an hour of private lesson before any other students came.

 A candid of Saraswathi and me.  Most unfortunately I cannot recall who took this photo.

A candid of Saraswathi and me.  Most unfortunately I cannot recall who took this photo.

It was sometime around this point when I met Saraswathi Jois, daughter of Pattabhi Jois.  She taught a week of Mysore Style classes at the Soho location of Yoga Works.  She would stand by my mat and have me do tick tocks (handstands dropping into backbends) each morning.  I honestly have no idea why and I’m almost certain I was the only one.

Also sometime around this point I met Dr. MA Jayashree and MA Narasimhan while they were on a tour of America.  Kimberly had studied Sanskrit, Philosophy, and Chanting with Jayashree for many years in Mysore, India and so Jayashree and Narasimhan would later become my teachers as well.  In fact, Jayashree’s family home is the first place I went to in Mysore as Kimberly was staying there at the time.

 Louise, middle front, and some of the gang in 2011.

Louise, middle front, and some of the gang in 2011.

Eventually Kimberly closed up shop at Prana Mandir and stopped teaching publicly for a time.  She sent me to Pure Yoga to continue my studies with John.  At Pure Yoga I both studied with and assisted John and taught for him if he was away.  Both he and Kimberly had been encouraging me to go to India and so in 2011 (now having practiced ashtanga consistently for about 5 years) I did.  I did not go to Mysore that first trip as The Shala was closed during the time of year I was able to go.  I ended up in Rishikesh where I met and studied with Louise Ellis, a direct student of K. Pattabhi Jois.  I had been practicing on my own in India before meeting Louise and had gotten myself into quite a bit of back pain.  Louise mitigated my back pain and set me up to heal slowly; she also introduced me to Advanced A Series, to the Yin Yoga practice, and pranayama as it had been taught by Pattabhi Jois. 

Louise’s Shala Fees
Approx. $300

Upon my return to NYC John continued my education in Advanced A Series up to gandha bherundasana.  It was during my exploration of Advanced A that I developed very intense shoulder pain to the point where I could no longer do vinyasas in the traditional manner.  After heavily editing my vinyasas to reduce the pain I relearned how to do them safely, including downward facing dog.  I still have some shoulder pain from time to time if I am not careful, which I blame more on the physical impact of teaching on the body than on practice.  John then left Pure Yoga and moved to Virginia for a professorship.  Kimberly took over the program and I again began to assist and practice with her.  She stripped me of several of my Advanced Series asanas and my practice was reduced to up through purna matsyendrasana (I was quite welcoming of this change).  I was still dealing with some back pain when Kimberly took over and with her help I completely relearned how to back bend.  I have not had back pain since.

2011 is the year Kimberly founded her YouTube channel Kiki Says and I got on board to help record and edit the videos.  The day I returned from my first India trip I went directly to Tompkins Square Park, all my luggage in tow, to film with Kimberly.  Over the next few years Kimberly and I made over 100 videos together spanning the length and breadth of yoga, health, and natural beauty.  It was a period of very intensive learning for me.

Ashtanga is an extremely compassionate practice.  It is not a kind practice.

I made my first trip to Mysore in early 2013 to study with Sharath Jois, the grandson of Pattabhi Jois.  Kimberly was there on a visit and our trips overlapped by about a week.  She showed me around and introduced me to everyone which resulted in, once she left, people assuming I had been to Mysore several times as I knew where everything was and had quite an array of connections.  Kimberly gave me some great advice during that time, “keep your head down, do your practice efficiently, get in and get out.”  In other words, have respect for your teacher’s time and energy. 

 Me and Kiki, B.B. Canteen, Laxmipuram, Mysore, India

Me and Kiki, B.B. Canteen, Laxmipuram, Mysore, India

Sadly, the great American Krishna bhakta, kirtanist, and translator Shyam Das died in a motor scooter accident not long after Kimberly left Mysore.  She was one of the first to hear the news and instructed me from New York to inform Sharath and Saraswathi, as they had both known Shyam.  This was the first time I had ever seen Sharath and Saraswathi, mother and son, together in the Director’s Office when I informed them of Shyam’s passing. 

During that first two month trip Sharath allowed me to practice up to dwipada sirsasana in the Intermediate Series.  I recall one morning Sharath added five asanas to my sequence which lead to a round of congratulations and astonishment outside the shala during coconut drinking time which I found a bit odd (after all, Louise had told me she learned all of Intermediate in one day) and, I discovered later, some viscous comments were whispered behind my back which I found quite silly.   This was the last year that Sharath permitted people to stay longer than three months in a single trip, due to overcrowding of the place.  It was also the last year for rolling admissions.

Sharath’s Shala fees
Approx.. $400 first month
Approx.. $300 second month

I was reunited with Jayashree and Narasimhan on that trip in 2013 and have studied chanting and philosophy with them each trip since, sometimes for up to three hours a day.  I also learned the TM technique of meditation directly from Narasimhan who was a direct student of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Anantha Research Foundation Fees
Approx. $120 per month donation

Special Course – TM technique
Approx.. $90 donation
(Learning the technique in NYC costs anywhere from $500 to $960 depending on your income level.)

 Jayashree and Narasimhan sitting in the background.

Jayashree and Narasimhan sitting in the background.

My second trip to Mysore was in 2014, again for two months, and up to vatayanasana was added onto my series.  This is the only trip to India where I lived by myself.  Once my landlord came up to my apartment to accuse me of having invited whores over, since I had had some female friends over for lunch the day before.  I eventually calmed him down after a great deal of yelling, but he still wanted copies of the passports and visa pages of all my visitors from then on.  These were never provided.

After that trip I started my own Mysore Style program, Bleecker Street Ashtanga at Sacred Sounds Yoga with Kimberly’s blessing.  The first day of teaching I had one student and this continued for the first month.  Slowly I built to three and then five; I still remember the excitement the day I had eight students in the room at the same time.  By the six month mark the program was viable (ie. paying for my teaching fees and not losing the studio money).  At the same time I was teaching the evening Mysore Style program at Land Yoga in Harlem.

My third trip to Mysore was in 2015, again for two months, and I finished Intermediate Series and was asked to do the first posture in Advanced.  Sharath gave me supta urdva pada vajrasana one morning during Led Intermediate Series and quizzed me on the posture’s name – I totally went blank and failed his pop quiz, shame on me.  He then informed me jokingly that he would take away my Authorization, but joke was on him as he had not yet Authorized me.  I was Authorized Level 2 by Sharath that trip.

Authorization Level 2
Approx. $1,800

After this trip I started working with people with severe spinal cord injury and degenerative diseases under the guidance of Kimberly.  We would work with the students, most of whom were in wheelchairs, in both group and private settings.  Eventually I began to teach some of these classes on my own without her supervision.

My fourth trip to Mysore was in 2016, this time for one month, and I was asked to do up through kasyapasana.  A highlight from that trip was getting chased by a pack of wild dogs on the way home one night.  Serves me right for being out after dark, Lord only knows what I was up to.  I saw Sharath again when he was on tour later that year.  I have not been able to see him since that time.

 Me, some of my students, and Sharath Jois

Me, some of my students, and Sharath Jois

In September of 2017 I began teaching the evening Mysore Program at Ashtanga Yoga Upper West Side.  There are many familiar faces there from my time years ago at Pure Yoga on the Upper West Side.  I am very grateful to be there.

It has been my great pleasure to host Louise twice at Bleecker Street Ashtanga, once in 2017 and just recently in 2018.  In addition I went to Paris to assist her when she was hosted by my dear friend Nicolas Legrez.

I practice a good deal of Primary Series these days:  more than I would were I in Mysore with nothing to do but eat, sleep, and practice.  I take Primary Series the day before or of travel in an airplane and for a week afterwards.  I take Primary Series the day before most Moon Days.  Sometimes I take Primary Series twice in one week simply because I am tired.

That brings us generally up to date with my yogacation (that’s yoga + education, not yoga + vacation).  I have found Ashtanga to be a versatile system that can be taught to anyone.  I personally have taught or have seen taught the young, old, emaciated, obese, weak, strong, deaf, partially blind, paraplegic, quadriplegic, healthy, infirm, amputated, stubborn, and foolish.  I categorize myself under stubborn and foolish.  I have taught a billionaire.  I have taught several multimillionaires.  I have taught people who worked at the studio in exchange for yoga class because they could not afford it otherwise.  I have never seen more diversity in a yoga setting than in a Mysore room. 

Postscriptum

Having done some quick math based on very conservative estimates I can say with confidence that I have been physically adjusted a minimum of 3,000 times.  I have been adjusted hard and soft.  I’ve had people stand on me, lie on me, poke me with fingers, pull and push on me.  I have found these adjustments to be very useful, both on a physical and energetic level.  I have never been injured by a physical adjustment.

I have hurt myself practicing ashtanga.  It was my own fault and it is highly doubtful the teacher could have done anything to keep me from doing it.  This is why I categorize myself under stubborn and foolish.

A little more math confirms that I have given a physical adjustment to another person a minimum of 35,000 times.  To my knowledge I have injured one person during a physical adjustment.  That is one person too many and I bear the full responsibility, regardless of circumstance.  I strive to learn from my mistakes.

The greatest yogi still living I ever met is my grandfather.  He has never taken a yoga class.

Oil Bath Magic

 Vasu and me, one fine summer's day.

Vasu and me, one fine summer's day.

I imagine that throughout the world ashtanga yoga teachers view their personal students as the very best, the very most special of all students.  Certainly I do.  My students prove to me over and over again that they are truly gifted.  After my recent post regarding Oil Bath my student Vasu, a remarkably young at heart woman hailing from Tamil Nadu, came to me with a bottle of Ponnangani Thailam (oil used specifically to reduce pitta) and a story.  Below is that story, written in her own words.  It is a story of love and loss, memory and dreams.  Vasu is now the age her Patti was then and is a vibrant addition to my life and the lives of everyone in the ashtanga satsang. Be prepared for gentle smiles, feelings of warmth and longing, and perhaps a tear or two. 

Oil Bath Magic

by Vasu Varadhan

“Shoodu, shoodu, thalai shoodu” Patti cries out, as her fleshy palms knead my scalp. Seated with my back to my grandmother, my body stiffens at her pronouncement, which sounds more like a lamentation, claiming my head is hot, very hot. She unbraids my long single plait and runs her fingers through the strands. “The ends are dry. It must be that shampoo you use in America. What you need is a hot oil bath to cool you down,” she says with an air of finality, leaving me perplexed as my eight-year old brain tries to make sense of the contradiction in her remark. It’s an early Friday morning at the start of my summer vacation at my paternal grandparents’ home in Madras. The oil bath sounds alluring, a refreshing change from the monotony that has begun to set in. Besides, I love my Patti who showers me with the kind of attention that my mother cannot spare as she gets ready to gallivant around town to do her shopping and visit friends. Although my younger brother, Ranga, makes for a good companion at times, force of habit finds me more in the role of his caretaker. The oil bath sounds mysterious and, if Patti is right, it seems like a good cure for the summer heat that is beginning to surge.

My smattering of Tamil is enough to make me conversant and I hang on Patti’s every word. I come to learn that Tuesdays and Fridays are auspicious days for women to have an oil bath and that for men, Saturdays are preferred. Patti has no explanation as to why this is so except to say that it’s always been the custom. I rush off to have my cup of Ovaltine while Patti summons my Aunt Saroja to gently warm the Gingili oil. I return quickly to the main hall which doubles as a space to greet visitors and is essentially where my Patti spends all of her waking and sleeping hours. She beckons me to sit on a small wooden plank which she positions directly under the ceiling fan and has me strip to my underwear. Fanning out my hair, Patti applies the first few drops of warm oil and begins to massage my scalp. She chatters away describing the miraculous healing power of the Gingili oil. Normally frail of health, Patti claims to be rejuvenated and revitalized on oil bath days. It relieves her symptoms of fatigue, tension and insomnia that plague her and erases the wrinkles on her seventy-year old skin. As if she is not proof enough of its beautification properties, she declares with authority that Cleopatra herself anointed her body daily with the oil. As more of the oil seeps into the follicles, my eyes begin to close and Patti’s words seem to echo in the distance. The trance is broken as Patti gently lifts me up and slathers the remaining drops of oil on my arms and legs. With a last flourish, she swipes my cheeks with her oily palms and beams, “This is done so you’ll never forget me Vasu.” She draws me close, kisses the top of my head and pays no mind to the oil stains on her sari. We play Snakes and Ladders to while away the time it takes for the oil to work its magic.

An hour later, Patti leads me by the hand to the bathroom at the rear of the house. It’s dank and dark inside. The floor, paved in stone, is chilly and slippery under my feet and I steady myself by grasping one end of Patti’s sari. A thin film of oil, a remnant of previous oil baths, coats the tiles. Patti gently lowers me onto a broad wooden plank that not only cushions my bottom but prevents me from sliding all over the place. A low-wattage bulb emits a dim glow and the only other source of light are the sparks dancing off the firewood in the clay oven on top of which rests a huge cauldron of water that is close to a boil. Mugs of hot water are poured into two buckets and cooled with the right amount of well water without making it overly tepid. Shikakai, a powder ground from soap nuts and used as a natural astringent, has been mixed with a few drops of water to a thick paste which rests inside half of a coconut shell. Patti warns me to close my eyes as she works the Shikakai into a lather. The tiny granules have a way of lodging themselves on the eyelashes and, despite being careful, my eyes begin to sting. Patti blows sharply into my eye to loosen the particles of Shikakai and gently wipes them away with the end of her sari. She wraps my hair in a thin cotton towel, expressely made of a special weave to increase its absorbency. I run my hands up and down my arms and legs amazed at the softness of my skin as I slip into my pavadai and see in the mirror that my face is aglow. The oil bath is truly magical.

 Ponnangani Thailam

Ponnangani Thailam

I return to the main hall and see Patti lighting little gray pellets spread on a flat iron plate with a long handle. “It’s Sambarani,” she says, “a fragrant incense, that will perfume your hair.” Patti turns over a big wicker basket to cover the fumes emanating from the Sambarani and with one hand cradling my nape, she gently lowers my head on top of it. She spreads the tendrils of my hair to insure each strand dries as wisps of smoke escape through the crevices. I’m afraid my hair will catch fire but Patti’s soothing hold is reassuring. The dying embers of the Sambarani signal the end of the oil bath ritual. Slowly, with care, Patti extricates my hair from atop the basket and gently removes the knots with a short wooden comb with wide teeth. She braids my hair, still slightly damp, in a loose plait and turns me around to face her. With a self- congratulatory air, she marvels at the glossy shine of my hair, proof of her handiwork as a true labor of love. The oil bath ritual leaves me enervated, sapped of all vitality which Patti claims is one of its benefits. I succumb to the languorous feeling it induces and doze off curled up in Patti’s arms. It is a sweet remembrance--sensuous, loving and intimate--of an oil bath that belongs forever to another place and time.

***

Barely three months later, news of Patti’s death reaches us in New York with an early morning telegram that arrives on one of the most celebrated days throughout India, Deepavali, the Festival of Lights. The October sky casts an even darker shadow over our apartment and the oil lamps Amma traditionally lights that day, are put away. The holiday which signifies the triumph of good over evil makes Patti’s sudden death harder to comprehend. How could an inauspicious event occur on such an auspicious day? In the quiet of my room, I mentally rewind to the times we last shared this past summer and I can almost smell the sesame roasted Gingili oil and aromatic Samabarani. I want to be whisked away into Patti’s arms and feel again the warmth of her embrace and, most of all, I long to have another oil bath with her.

Amma, much like Patti, invests the oil bath with a magical potency capable of curing everything form insomnia to indigestion. In keeping with her strive to authenticate and preserve as much of her Indian traditions as possible, Amma has tins of Gingili oil sealed in wax along with packets of Shikakai powder shipped from Madras. Like most South Indian Brahmin families, she is accustomed since childhood to take an oil bath at least once a week. Her long hair, jet black with a glossy sheen, attests to its benefits. However, I can barely remember Amma taking an oil bath here in America. I have but a fleeting image of her hair coated in oil and later seeing her in the kitchen with a thin towel wrapped around her head. I can only infer that she indulges herself in the ritual when I’m away at school. Strangely, my first memory of an oil bath is the one with Patti although Amma assures me she has given me several before. The only other oil bath that sticks in my mind is the one I have during the summer following my Patti’s death.

On a hot Sunday in June of 1956, I rise early, my mood somewhat foul, as I trudge downstairs to grind the coffee beans, a chore that has become as routine as brushing my teeth. Just last night, Appa, his arm around me, has pleaded with Amma, “Let Vasu sleep late for once. Tomorrow’s a Sunday, the last day of her weekend. The coffee can wait until later.” Amma responds with a noncommittal shrug but I can tell from the look in her eyes that tomorrow morning will be no different from all the other mornings. As the water drips through the filter, I feel deeply touched by Appa’s concern for me and exceedingly grateful to have him as an ally but it is of cold comfort when I realize that his regard for me is as short-lived as his presence in my life.

Amma fixes the coffee South Indian style, pouring the brew, she calls “decoction,” into the stainless steel tumbler placed inside a dabara, a wide saucer with lipped walls. Lightened with hot milk, it is the perfect way to start her day and the only proper way to drink coffee, she says. Porcelain cups, in her view, mar the flavor. Appa, prefers to have his coffee in bed while poring over the international and national news in the Sunday New York Times. Amma saves the advertising sections for later reading. My older brother, Ramu, is tinkering with his Erector set, while my younger brother, Ranga, reads in his room. With everyone suitably occupied, Amma is free to focus her attention on me and start the preparations for my oil bath. As she warms the Gingili oil in a cast iron skillet, I smell the nutty aroma of the sesame seeds. Seated on the kitchen floor with an old towel wrapped around my pajama top, I unbraid my hair, normally in a tight plait, and feel weighted down by its length and thickness. Amma, clad in an old sari that bears the stains of previous oil baths, takes a palmful of the warm Gingili oil and gently begins to massage my scalp. Her breathing is labored as she musters as much strength as possible with her bony fingers. I savor Amma’s sensuous presence much like I did Patti’s and am soothed by the touch of her hands, the smell of her body and the taste of her breath redolent of morning coffee. I have an irrepressible urge to bury my head in the folds of her sari but I stop myself. Amma does not like to display or receive affection in a physical manner. She has an aversion to being kissed and pushes me away exclaiming in distaste that kisses carry saliva filled with germs. She even rebuffs Appa who has a habit of kissing her hello when he returns from work. Without fail, Amma turns her cheek as Appa’s lips brush her hair. Although hugs and cuddles are germ-free, Amma saves these for my older brother, Ramu, and has none to give for Ranga and me. She feels Ramu has been deprived of affection since he was sent to boarding school at a young age and must therefore be compensated. The oil bath is my only opportunity to grasp at a shred of intimacy with my mother no matter how restrained.

Amma gathers my hair into a knot and tucks it under a few strands to keep it in place and, with the little oil that remains, she coats my face and arms. I wait for her to say, “I won’t forget you Vasu,” like Patti did but her lips don’t move. I have an hour to kill before my bath and wish I could play a board game with my younger brother, Ranga. I remember how quickly the time passed when Patti and I played Snakes and Ladders. But Amma will hear nothing of it. She is afraid I will accidentally ruin the furniture with grease stains and steers me towards the bottom step of the staircase where I’ll be out of harm’s way. I can feel the droplets of oil seep into my follicles, and am intoxicated by the aroma of the Gingili oil. The tension and tautness in my muscles start to abate and I close my eyes.

I am roused by the whisper of Amma’s sari as it brushes against my arm and follow her up the stairs. Now, nine years old and more self-conscious of my body, I persuade Amma to let me bathe in my underwear. The steam arising from the two plastic buckets of hot water does little to ward off the chill of the cold ceramic tile as I lower myself into the bathtub. Goose pimples rise on my arms and I begin to shiver. I look up at Amma who drowns my stare with mugs of water and cautions me to keep my eyes closed as she applies the Shikakai paste. “Your hair is thick and long and will use up a lot of Shikakai which I can’t get here for love or money. I’ll have to use a little shampoo at the end to get rid of the oil,” she says. I love the smell of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo in my hair and that it’s the Baby No Tears brand is an added plus. Amma concentrates all her efforts on cleaning my hair as if she is ridding a cloth of deeply-set stains. She seems to forget it is attached to a human being. Once my hair is cleansed, she sweeps it up into a pile and stuffs it under a shower cap. She abruptly leaves having done her bit and instructs me to wash the rest of my body. Amma’s cold efficient attitude makes me shiver again and I seek warmth in the bath water that has now risen to my waist since the grains of Shikakai have clogged the small drain. I sit chest-deep in a stagnant pool of murky brown water, a ludicrous cloud of white shampoo bubbles floating across its surface. I finish bathing as quickly as I can before the tub overflows. The only part of me that is squeaky clean is my hair.

I inspect the strands for any tell-tale signs of the Shikakai of which there are many and it looks like I have a bad case of dandruff. I bend my head over the sink and using a terry towel like a threshing machine, I try to shake loose as many of the tiny particles as possible. My efforts are in vain. My wet hair is a magnet for the pesky granules. I have no choice but to wait until my hair is dry to comb out the remnants of the powder. My stomach begins to growl and suddenly I feel famished.

I know this Sunday lunch will be special because Appa’s home. Amma breathes her love into his favorite dishes: fenugreek sambar, tomato rasam, small eggplants stuffed with spices and a carrot and cucumber salad. Forsaking our usual habit of sitting around the dining table, we revert to the custom of eating Indian style. Unwanted sections of the day’s New York Times are strewn across our kitchen floor. Although we are cramped for space, we manage to sit cross- legged in a circle, each of us with our own stainless steel thali, the traditional plate for eating food, that Amma had shipped from Madras. Using only our right hand, we scoop the food into our mouths smacking our lips in appreciation. There is a look of pride on Amma’s face and in every morsel of food, I taste the love she cannot express in a hug or a kiss. It is the kind of nourishment that comes natural to Amma and it is all I can come to expect. This miniature tableau of family togetherness is a rarity and it satiates a hunger in me that far exceeds the satisfaction of a good meal.

I am in dire need of a post-prandial nap but Amma insists I either get the tangles out of my hair myself or let her do it. With no hesitation I opt for the former. Amma is rough with the comb and yanks at every knot and snarl with such vengeance I often fear my hair will be pulled from its roots. The heat in the apartment is unbearable and with no air conditioning, the only source of relief is the standing General Electric fan in my parents’ bedroom. Amma, more than Appa, relishes her afternoon nap and, as a rule, my brothers and I are not to disturb them. Amma makes an exception this day and says as long as I am quiet, I can use the fan to dry my hair. It’s an unexpected concession on her part which I am only too eager to accept.

I pirouette softly on my toes in front of the only full-length mirror in our apartment. I take my time with the knots in my hair and gather it up to catch the fan breeze around the nape of my neck. I fluff my hair and give it a gentle shake to dislodge the granules of Shikakai. I glance in the mirror and the fan appears to have receded in the distance. I step back and in an instant I feel the steely grip of the blades as they grab at my hair and suck the strands into its greedy vortex. I pull with all my might as if in a game of tug-of-war and scream as the weight of the fan lands with a thud on the back of my head. The last thing I remember is Amma switching off the fan and cradling me in her arms.

The accident bores a hole in my memory. I am frozen in time. A cacophonous stream of voices flood my ears that I can barely identify the speaker. I think I hear my mother telling me that Appa had a heart attack the night of my accident brought on by his fear that I might have suffered brain damage. Someone, maybe a kindly neighbor, or a friend of the family, says I cannot visit Appa at Queens General Hospital because children are not allowed in the intensive care unit. I am shocked by the news and even more shocked to discover that up to now I am not even aware that Appa is no longer home. I am inured to his habitual absences which run like a scar across my childhood rendering me numb to any sense of loss.

Another scene is etched in my mind. Amma is seated at the dining room table, her hands cradling the soft folds of flesh below her navel. She points to her stomach and tells me there’s a ball growing inside. The doctor told her it’s a tumor that must be removed as soon as possible which means Amma must undergo surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital with Appa still hospitalized. Amma assures me we’ll be taken care of by a good friend of Appa’s, a certain Miss Olive Reddick, who will live with us for a short time. An emotional vacuum stretches across the absence of both my parents. Whatever feelings I have are buried in forgetfulness.

Ranga and I are amused by the prim and proper, no-nonsense attitude of Miss Reddick. Although diminutive in stature, she wields her authority with a heavy hand. We plan a childisprank to take our revenge. I see myself climbing through the window of my parents’ bedroom onto the roof, waiting for Ranga to pass me a bucket of cold water. Both of us are perched on the roof’s edge, on the lookout for Miss Reddick who has stepped out to run a quick errand. We finally spot her as she heads home and with great precision we calculate the right moment to tip the bucketful of water over her and congratulate ourselves as it hits its mark. Miss Reddick, her face beet-red, admonishes us in her Canadian accent which sounds British, and banishes us to our room. Without any feelings of remorse, we squeal with laughter and it is the only moment of hilarity that stays with me forever.

My mind fast forwards to an image of my father combing my hair. It appears anomalous since Amma is the only one who does my braid. She must still be in the hospital. Appa and I are seated cross-legged on our maroon-colored Bokhara carpet, my back to him. His hand gently glides the teeth of the comb through the strands of my hair as if it is brittle. I hear and feel Appa’s exasperation with every breath he takes. Short spurts of warm air seep into my cotton top, as he repeatedly tries and fails to braid my hair. I wind up with a pony tail but the tenderness of his touch wraps around me like a second skin.

These mental photographs are the only ones that flash before me. The faces of my father, mother and younger brother stare at me in all their prominence while that of my older brother is curiously absent. The image I have of myself is a mere blur. I cannot recall if my hair is as long as before or whether the blades of the fan chopped some of it off. All that remains is a watery reflection rippling across a dark pool, shards of memory bobbing along the surface.

There are no hints from either friends or family that anything is amiss which leads me to believe that the customary cadence of my life both at home and at school has returned. There is no mention of the accident and its occurrence is but a dramatic pause in the passage of time. However, that oil bath Sunday with its allure of restorative calm and peace of mind stokes a burning disquiet that is palpable. Appa resumes his trips to Geneva but now as he is ready to depart, I hear Amma lecture him as if he is a child. She compiles a list of what and what not to do: No salt in your diet; cut down on eating rice, have fish or chicken instead; do not stay at the office late; try to get eight hours of sleep; and please, please, cut down on your smoking. Appa’s heart attack makes Amma cruelly aware of his mortality and she is afraid to be far from his side. He comforts her with his promise to do as she requests and in his signature fashion, he urges my brothers and me to be on our best behavior. I hug Appa tightly, so tightly, I can feel his heart throb against mine, the beat of its pulse loud and strong. But the usual sadness that accompanies his departure suddenly seems a lot heavier. I retreat to my room for longer periods of time afflicted with a certain melancholy. I fall silent unable to voice thoughts I can no longer remember.

That oil bath Sunday leaves a sadness in its wake, a sadness that bears no connection to its aftermath. It has more to do with the fact that it is the only oil bath I can remember, the memory of other ones in our Queens apartment lost in the shadows. I appreciate Amma’s efforts to safeguard a tradition cherished since her childhood, but somehow upon its arrival in America, it is stripped of its potency and mythical properties. I have a deep-seated need to transport the oil bath back to the land of its birth where it rightfully belongs. I take a mental journey to my grandparents’ home in Madras and once again look up into my Patti’s smiling eyes as the first drops of warm Gingli oil sink into my hair. This is the oil bath laden with magic.

Oil Bath

Do you ache all over from your Ashtanga practice?  Are you angry or irritable?  Could you be described as hot headed?  Are you tired or not sleeping well?  If you answered yes to any of these questions and certainly if you answered in the affirmative to multiple you need Oil Bath. 

If you want directions for oil bath and some helpful videos you can scroll down now to skip my small divergence on the meandering blog path.
 My first trip to Mysore, India.  Kiki's 13th? trip.

My first trip to Mysore, India.  Kiki's 13th? trip.

Oil bath is very special to me, not just because it has been super helpful over the years keeping my body and mind in tip top shape, but because it provides a very direct parampara connection between me and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.  Guruji taught the method of oil bath directly to Kimberly “Kiki” Flynn.  Kimberly taught the method of oil bath directly to me.  BOOM!  The handing down of traditional knowledge at its best.   Kimberly used to spread the method of oil bath to many ashtanga practitioners, both while in India and at home.  She got permission to write up the directions from Guruji so that the spread of knowledge could be a little less time consuming – I have quoted her entire article below so that you too can have information directly from the source.  Now I have taken to spreading the method of oil bath.  I go so far as to host oil bath parties when I’m in Mysore to teach people new to the ayurvedic remedy the hows and whys.  Kimberly and I shot two videos (view them below) – one on why and one on how – in a small apartment in Manhattan’s East Village to put up on YouTube.   As of this writing the why video has 13,855 views and the how has 14,669.  Not too shabby.

 Oil Bath Party!!!  Mysore, India

Oil Bath Party!!!  Mysore, India

For my part I have discovered over the years that many people are doing oil bath wrong. “Incorrect method, no benefit!” Guruji used to say.  Moreover, people are doing oil bath wrong even after being told how to do oil bath.  To attempt to remedy this I have put together a little do’s and don’ts for our intrepid oil bathing friends.  Think of them as the yamas and niyamas of the oil bathing process.    

Oil Bath Yamas (The Don’ts)

1.     Do not fill your bathtub with oil.  “Bath” in case is the Indian version, not the western version.  By extension, do not stand in your bathtub and pour a bottle of oil over your head – this is not oil shower.

2.     Do not spend 45 minutes or some other lengthy amount of time massaging oil into your skin.  This is not necessary and will inadvertently add to the amount of time the oil has been on your head.

3.     Do not throw dry soap nut and arapu powders (brown and green powders) onto your skin.  The powders are meant to be mixed into a paste with water.  If you do not have access to these powders you could also you chickpea power or calamus powder to remove the oil.  Of course nice organic castile soap and shampoo also work.

4.     Do not wear nice clothes while doing oil bath.  You will ruin them.

5.     Do not take oil bath while menstruating.

Oil Bath Niyamas (The Do’s)

1.  Use good organic oil.  Guruji recommended castor oil and when that was unavailable almond oil.  After consultations with my Ayurvaidica I have used sesame oil and coconut oil depending on the season.  If you have access to an Ayurvaidica they should be able to give you good information on which oil is best for you.

2.  Have time to rest after your oil bath.  You will be tired and you should take advantage of that feeling to let the body rejuvenate itself.

3.  Keep warm after your oil bath.  Snuggle under the covers and enjoy a hot water bottle between your sheets.

4.  Start slow and build up slow.  Oil bath is powerful stuff.  So maybe you don’t get a huge reaction from oil on your head for just 15 minutes, have some patience, you will start to see results sooner than you think if you stick to the traditional method.

5.  Stay out of the sun after oil bath.

 A visit to Guruji's old shala in Laxmipuram, Mysore.  Kiki and me.

A visit to Guruji's old shala in Laxmipuram, Mysore.  Kiki and me.

Here we have a further description and instructions for oil bath from Kimberly “Kiki” Flynn.  I could not write it better myself.  You can find Kiki on her website or on her YouTube channel Kiki Says.

Oil bath is a traditional, weekly Ayurvedic home remedy still practiced widely in South India. Shri K. Pattabhi Jois routinely recommends oil bath to his yoga students especially for the relief of back and knee pain as well as stiffness. Weekly oil bath reduces excess internal heat (pitta in Ayurveda) particularly in the joints, liver, and skin. This heat is generated by poor lifestyle, including consumption of oily, processed, and difficult to digest foods, alcohol and tobacco, in addition to stress, air pollution and inadequate sleep. This imbalance increases with the heat generated by yoga practice and hot climate. Eating an over-sufficiency of healthy foods that are deemed "heating" in Ayurvedic terms, also adds to this imbalance.

Excess heat can be felt in the joints as pain and stiffness and in the back, often in the lower right-hand side and hip, as a nearly debilitating pain. This heat also contributes to a short temper, burning anger, red skin, pinkish acne, and redness in the eyes. When a daily ashtanga yoga practitioner still carries extra weight, especially around the middle, has difficulty with weight loss or with digestion, and has a regularly sluggish bowel, these are all signs of surplus heat.

In India, oil bath is customarily taken with castor oil that is later removed from the skin and hair with a special herbal paste made of equal parts soap nut and green powders mixed with water. Castor oil delivers the best results, but is nearly impossible to remove without these powders. Guruji suggests that, after leaving India, the yoga student can replace castor oil with almond oil, which easily washes off with bath soap.

Daily baths in India are taken by pouring water over the head from a bucket while standing in the bath, a river, or other body of water. It is in reference to this bath that oil bath is so termed. In other words, the student is not soaking in a tub of oil; rather he or she is using oil first on the head. Oil is rubbed into the scalp which draws the heat upward through the body, where it finally exits through the crown of the head.

Pattabhi Jois recommends that a student takes oil bath every Saturday (on his or her day of rest or once per week) at the start of the morning. After oil bath, one should rest for the day and avoid the following: strong sun, cold water, yoga or heavy work of any kind. For men, tradition prescribes that oil bath be taken on Monday, Wednesday or Saturday. For women, oil bath is prescribed on Tuesday or Friday; Guruji provides that his female students can take oil bath on the day off, Saturday. A woman should never take oil bath during menstruation, rather, she should take it on the fourth day (following the first three days of menses, during which time she has abstained from yoga practice). If one is not able to take oil bath on a given Saturday, he or she may take it on one of the above appropriately listed days.

Directions for Oil Bath

Note: When using castor oil, first place the bottle in warm water to thin out the oil for easier application.

1. Apply ample amount of oil to your head, rubbing into the scalp and through to the ends of your hair.

2. Leave oil on the head for the allotted time. For your first oil bath, leave the oil on your head for only five minutes. Continue increasing the time weekly by five minute increments until the oil is left on the head for a full two hours (a 6 month process); this is the maximum recommendation. At this juncture, you should practice two hours weekly, not exceeding this time.

Important: Years of accumulated heat should safely be relieved in stages. Therefore, it is essential to carefully follow the time recommendation. Inappropriately increasing the prescribed minutes may lead to a cold, vomiting, chills or diarrhea, all of which are symptoms of too much heat rising too soon.

3. Having completed your allotted time for oil on the head, generously apply oil to the whole body. As you rub oil over your body, take time to rub and massage elbow, knee and shoulder joints, along the spine and into any areas that are chronically sore. You need not apply oil to the face. This step should take an additional five to ten minutes.

4. Take a very hot shower or bucket bath. Let the hot water run over the scalp as you massage the existing oil deeper into the crown. Continue to rub the oily skin focusing on the joints and spine. This is an important step as the hot water opens pores and draws internal heat from the skin and joints. This shower may last five to fifteen minutes.

5. Apply soap and shampoo, or soap nut and green powder mixture to remove oil. After turning off the shower, lather up with soap on the skin and shampoo in the hair to remove almond oil. If castor oil is used, then apply soap nut and green powder mixture rubbing the paste over the whole body and through the hair and scalp. Be careful and avoid getting soap nut powder, dry or wet, in the eyes or nose, as it will cause a burning sensation. As you rub the paste over the skin, it will turn from dark to light green which indicates that the oil is being absorbed.

To make the paste, in a large bowl mix equal parts soap nut powder and green powder with enough water to create a paste with a honey-like consistency. Soap nut is active in absorbing the castor oil and can make the skin feel very dry. Green powder leaves the skin and hair feeling soft and smooth.

6. Take a second shower or bucket bath to remove oil and lather or special paste. Take this shower at a warm, comfortable temperature and use enough soap and shampoo to remove the almond oil. If you are washing off soap nut paste and castor oil, be sure to close your eyes when rinsing your hair; you'll probably want to follow up with shampoo. This shower lasts up to ten minutes.

You have successfully completed oil bath.

7. Wash the shower/bath area. The shower floor will be very slippery and the drain may be clogged a bit. Scrub the shower area well to avoid slipping and pour a kettle of boiling water down the drain to keep it open. If you have used soap nut paste, you may be faced with a muddy mess. Clean all surfaces and be sure to pour boiling water down the drain.

8. Rest over the next few hours, avoiding hard work, strong sun and swimming in or drinking cold water. For the daily ashtanga practitioner, it is important to take a full day off, allowing the body and mind to rest and rejuvenate for the coming week of practice, study, work and family life.

If the desired results of oil bath are not felt at first, don't give up. Continue to include this time-honored treatment in your weekly schedule and be confident in the radiant health benefits it bestows.

The Why of Oil Bath.  Ashtanga Yoga and Pattabhi Jois recommend this health and fitness tradition. Natural health and beauty for all ages form a secret tradition of India.  More available at www.kikiflynn.com.

The How of Oil Bath.  Let's cut to the chase. Here's how it's done. www.kikiflynn.com Ashtanga Yoga and Pattabhi Jois recommend this health and fitness tradition. Natural health and beauty for all ages form a secret tradition of India. Have an edge in yoga and health. Be strong, fit, flexible calm and relaxed.

No Substitutions

Today I noticed a street sign, lazily set there next to a taqueria on St. Marks.  It's neon markered letters read "there's no substitute for the real thing."  Oh what wisdom you proclaim lowly street sign!  Truly, once you experience the real thing, any substitution becomes lack luster.  I've made my yoga life a hunt for the real thing.  Happily, I've been lucky enough to find it.

Satsang and parampara - these are the real deal.  Without them I would not be where and what I am today. They go together like peanut butter and jelly and support each other like abhyasa and vairagya.  Parampara is the spine containing all the nerves ready to pass information from the brain to the body.  Satsang is the body housing the spine with all it seemingly separate parts which nonetheless form a whole system ready to communicate with the brain. Together the body and mind can do amazing things, things neither one could do alone.

L1.jpg

It starts with knowledge - someone's got it and I want it.  This is the essence of parampara, the passing of knowledge. The method is so beautiful in its simplicity:  teacher teaches student who eventually becomes teacher that teaches student and so on through the inexorable march of time.  But parampara has a great caveat, one our modern culture has difficulty with, and that is that it takes time.

Lots and lots of time.

I've gone to great lengths to study in the ashtanga lineage.  I used to assist my teacher, trading hard labor for a chance to learn, two hours a day five days a week for years in addition to my own highly demanding physical practice.  I've traveled to India for months at a time to wake up at 2am to be ready to start practice before four.  I still routinely wake at 3:30am to practice what my teachers have taught before my students arrive for instruction.  I brought a teacher halfway across the country to teach an intensive at my little program on Bleecker Street so that my students and I could have the privilege of studying with her (more on this later).  All this I have done voluntarily (though I cannot claim without complaint) because someone else had knowledge and I wanted it.

These efforts, by themselves, have a couple negative drawbacks.  Exhaustion and loneliness easily creep into a traditional ashtanga practice.  There must be a mechanism in place to avoid the eventual despondency that is bred by exhaustion and lonliness.  Satsang is the buoy that keeps me afloat, lifting my head above the dark waves of the predawn solo practice. 

Satsang is surrounding yourself with the right kind of people.  The type of people that give more to the community than they take.  People that, like me, are searching for experience beyond the mundane.  The type of people that clear away the unnecessary and provide what is lacking.  Typically, these people are not difficult to find; often they are provided by parampara.  They can be mentors, family members, friends, or students and certainly this list is not exhaustive.  Some take a little more effort to hold onto, like caring for a lovable and unruly puppy - others you can't seem to shoo away, like the old cat that has decided to nap in your lap.  The satsang will support you in your times of want, of which there will be many, and celebrate with you in your times of plenty, of which there will also be many.

I was recently reminded of the power of satsang and parampara.  A necessary and vibrant reminder for me whose predawn world becomes cloudy from time to time.  My morning Mysore program Bleecker Street Ashtanga at Sacred Sounds Yoga hosted Louise Ellis for a four day intensive that brought satsang and parampara together with the dramatic results of flint and tinder.  A fire was lit in the attendees who came from shalas throughout the city, country, and hemisphere.  I expect this fire will smolder for quite sometime, waiting patiently for more fuel with which to ignite and give warmth and light.  

 3 generations of ashtangis

3 generations of ashtangis

Louise was described by an attendee as, "A sun warmed lake, still on the surface, deep and calm." Louise is many things that I am not, but aspire to be:  gentle where I am hard, quiet where I am loud, and specific where I am general.  Serene power radiates from her and is immediately picked up by those around her.  Her grace and ease in asana and while teaching are a sight to behold.  Louise has the real stuff:  parampara, the knowledge I want and satsang, the supportive community I enjoy.  

Here's to seeing you again soon "granny."  Thank you for everything.