Chasing Tigers, Poking Cobras - A Yoga Blog

The Embrace of Mysore Ashtanga

Dearest Reader,
I’m sure you get tired of reading my writing from time to time and so, in an effort to keep your attention, the entry that follows is by a dear student of mine, Julia Stone. She presented the piece to me as a “musing”, but I feel it is so much more. I hope that you enjoy.

The Embrace of Mysore Ashtanga

by Julia Stone

Like so many of us, I came to the Mysore room to heal.

About six months before I stepped into the room, I had injured my back in a way that terrified me – or I should say, to a *degree* that terrified me. The pain was some sort of carnivorous vine wrapping around my lower back, rendering me inert. I couldn’t stand, walk or sit. Lying down was better, but after a while I would inevitably have to adjust or rise, and then the pain would come back with a vengeance. It was the type of pain where you can’t even locate the point of origin - a medieval corset that made my hips throb, bowing to its sudden and mysterious power.

Yoga was something I did when I had a random bit of free time. I didn’t make time for yoga, and I had never loved yoga. I grew up in a place where everyone did yoga, so naturally I was resistant to it. Especially when I was in high school and a Sufi-esque modern dance teacher/model who was substituting for my actual dance teacher wanted to warm up with sun salutations. What?! I was here to create, to jump, to express and escape myself. Last month, with my *real* teacher, we had performed as various bugs splatting against the wall. I didn’t want some mundane (and strangely difficult) yoga warm-ups from my local health-food coop.

I began to actually like yoga as kind of a fluke – I was working as a cook in San Francisco, and I had developed sciatica from all of the standing and chopping. I should mention that I am really really tall, but apparently even the lauded, and much more petite, chef Alice Waters had sciatica, so I guess none of us is immune. When someone in the kitchen recommended yoga, I gave it a shot. I adored my yoga teacher and the intimate studio where we practiced. But mine was a messy routine – inconsistent and undisciplined. I felt better after doing yoga, but the sensation didn’t last long.

Years later, in New York with my fresh back injury in remission, I think I ultimately took the plunge for Mysore Ashtanga because of its purported therapeutic design. I read about how Guruji used yoga as therapy to help patients with a number of different ailments. I also liked the notion that in the Mysore room you can gradually build up a practice, and that the practice will meet you where you are – injured or otherwise. It appeared to me as a healing modality.

So I looked for teachers of the method in my neighborhood, and decided to try Michael’s class because he seemed devoted but not dogmatic – an elusive combo that I’ve since found to be true. I emailed and inquired about the best time to start, to which Michael replied: “right now” is always the best time to start.

When I entered the Mysore room, I suppose I felt a typical degree of intimidation. I had never had anything remotely close to a private lesson, and was used to just kind of muddling through whatever the teacher was demonstrating in front of the class. Oh, how I was in for a surprise! Michael had me place my mat right next to him (in full view!), and sat down beside me to begin. “This is a breathing practice,” he said – words that I still cling to around halfway through my Surya Namaskar Bs.

Michael had me doing sun salutations for weeks. Loads of them. And practically *nothing* else. Since that time, I’ve seen many students enter - but never return to - our practice space after their first class, and I always want to shout out at them: he had me do this too!! There’s nothing wrong with you! It’s not going to last forever!!

Anyhow, at one point I also remember Michael saying something to the effect of: Well, it’s taken your body years to get like this, you can’t just expect to undo everything overnight - these things take time. This sentiment reminded me of something that my mom told me after I’d had my second son: it’s taken your body nine months to get this way – be patient with its careful return.

But once Michael starting gradually adding asanas onto the sun salutations, things got a little dicey. Right away, from just the first few new positions, I was feeling a strange sensation in the center of my knee. I immediately began to question my decision to start Ashtanga, and was dreading the notion that I might injure myself in the process of healing. I described the pain to Michael, and he seemed to think it was just some inflammation. But I’d never had ANY knee pain – what was I doing to myself?! Should I trust him? These are my KNEES we are talking about here!

It is so hard to trust a teacher, but it is harder not to trust one. The pain in my knee quickly subsided, but new pains rose and passed throughout my body like running water. Next it was my hamstring, where I had to adjust all of my forward folds by deeply bending my knees, and then straightening and engaging them again as soon as I was able. Then it was some seriously sharp pain in my side. The pains would arrive, reside in a part of my body for a while, and then leave as though they were never there.

Slowly, I began to trust that the pains would come, and that they would go. Oddly enough, those pains have yet to reappear in the same spot. Once, when I got a pain in the same area of my lower back that I had injured months before, I was flooded with the memory of that pain. The new pain started trickling around my hips – radiating a bit on the sides. I was strangely calm, gently modifying my practice and focusing on my breathing, but to my surprise and delight, the pain didn’t progress – it just stayed there for a few days and subsided.

I described this whole process to my Ashtanga-curious mom by comparing it to a teenager wearing braces: if your teeth are really crooked, it’s going to take a lot of slow, gentle pressure to realign them. Don’t move too fast or you’ll damage the root. The asanas seem to serve as a type of brace – guiding the body back into the position where it will ultimately feel the most comfort.

But sitting in a chair behind a computer all day is also a brace – and one that for many of us must co-exist with asana. So it is a constant struggle: we are pulling our bodies one way for hours each day, and then trying to realign them each morning.

The breath, however, isn’t relegated to hours in the Mysore room or the office. The breath can transcend these marked spaces. Perhaps part of why Ashtanga yoga is a healing practice is because it demands the breath front and center. When you forget the breath - no matter where you are - the benefits quickly escape.

The concept of a breathing practice is a rather confusing one. Is it that we are literally practicing our breathing, or that the practice itself is a living, breathing entity that somehow requires our attention? I am still very new to this breathing practice, whatever it is exactly, but as I move through the motions in the Mysore room each morning, I feel profound gratitude to hear the guiding words of my teacher: “breathe higher.”

So high that even the corset can’t constrict us.

Me and some of “the kids” - Ashtanga picnic!!!

Me and some of “the kids” - Ashtanga picnic!!!

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

The How of Oil Bath.  Let's cut to the chase. Here's how it's done. 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.

What is Ashtanga? The Long Version

Mysore Ashtanga practice typically starts with a mantra. Eight simple lines in Sanskrit are chanted by thousands of people across the globe before they begin their daily yoga practice.  Many mornings “vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde” are the first words to pass my lips. Repeating the mantra morning after morning over the years has imbued it with a special power – the power to bring my mind into focus and transform any space from mundane to specially set apart for the task at hand. The task at hand is breathing and moving at its most basic level and complete mental absorption at its most intense. 

vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde
I give honor and respect to the teachers, bowing down to their lotus feet

Sharath in NYC

Sharath in NYC

Ashtanga Yoga is a lineage based system and as such the exact method of practice is passed down directly from teacher to student. The only way to learn how to practice ashtanga is to study with someone who learned how to practice ashtanga from someone who learned how to practice ashtanga……….and so on.

The practice cannot be learned from a book, though there are good books on the subject, and cannot be learned from videos, though there are a plethora of videos on the subject. The importance of the student teacher relationship cannot be stressed enough. The current lineage holder, R. Sharath Jois, resides in Mysore, India where he teaches the ashtanga method at the Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI). Sharath teaches the way his grandfather, Pattabhi Jois, taught him, who in turn taught the way he learned the method from the great T. Krishnamacharya, a veritable legend of a man in the yoga world. KPJAYI is only entity in the world to keep a list of teachers with permission from Sharath to teach the ashtanga yoga method.  Any teacher with the blessing of KPJAYI will have made several extended trips to India to study, in addition to their own “self practice” which is expected to be daily.   

The revealed knowledge of one’s essential Self, which brings joy

The Mysore Style of teaching cultivates a self-practice within each student. The ashtanga system is comprised of postures done in a specific order to special breathing technique.  The postures and their order coupled with the breathing technique are taught to each student individually. When the student becomes proficient in what he or she has learned the teacher adds more postures to her or his daily self-practice. 

A random moment in the Mysore R===

A random moment in the Mysore R===

Walking into a Mysore Style ashtanga practice can look like pandemonium to a new student.  Everyone is breathing at their own individual pace, working on different postures of the sequence, and focusing on their own practice.  The room is often silent except for the sound of inhale and exhale with the exception of the teacher who roams the room explaining, clarifying, giving physical adjustments and support.  Learning to practice through this method builds the student’s confidence in her or his ability to practice with or without the support of a teacher and group of fellow practitioners. Cultivating a self-practice, done to one’s own breath, with full concentration on the task at hand engenders curiosity towards introspection.  With consistent practice knowledge of one’s own essential being can be gained.  

niḥśreyase jāṅgalikāyamāne
(this knowledge is) beyond the best – without comparison, acting like the jungle physician
saṁsāra hālāhala moha śāntyai
pacifies the most deadly poison of conditioned existence

Ashtanga systematically works strengthen and heal the body, control the breath and nervous system, and calm the mind. The sequence of postures is intelligently designed to build muscle, increase range of motion, and improve the actions of the internal organs. Anyone willing to put forth consistent effort can practice ashtanga regardless of body type, fitness level, or special consideration.  The practice will always meet the student at his or her level and encourage a steady progression towards new horizons. Consistent practice leads to a strong body, controlled nervous system, and steady mind.  The skills and self-awareness gleaned from sweat and toil on the yoga mat can be used in all parts of life. There is no end to the ashtanga journey, only a beginning.

abāhu puruṣākāraṁ
In the form of a man to the shoulders

śaṁkhacakrāsi dhāriṇam
Holdinga conch, a discus, and a sword

sahasra śirasaṁ śvetaṁ
Having one thousand shining white head

praṇamāmi patañjalim
I bow to Patanjali


The word ashtanga – eight limbs - comes from the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras of the sage Patanjali. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is one of the definitive texts on yoga.  T. Krishnamacharya went so far as to say that if it is not contained in the Yoga Sutras then it is not yoga. This eight-limbed path of yoga is comprised of moral ethics, posture practice, breath control, inward focus, and mental control - to put things simply. The sage Patanjali is traditionally depicted as man up to the shoulders with a thousand shining white serpentine heads.  The serpent, a symbol of wisdom and knowledge, is held in reverence in India.  Patanjali’s thousand heads illustrate his need and ability to impart knowledge in many different ways to many different people.  The sage holds a conch used to trumpet the primordial sound of creation, a discus to sever the ego, and a sword signifying his knowledge of ultimate truth.  The Yoga Sutras have survived 2,000 years and continue to inform and define yoga practice today.

Tradition is held in reverence in the ashtanga system.  Ashtangis adhere to a lunar calendar for their practice, taking both new moon and full moon days off to rest. Teachers present and past are honored and respected for the knowledge they are spreading by continuing to teach the method as it has been taught to them, without creative deviation. In no way does this commitment to tradition cause the practice to stagnate. The ashtanga practice develops a different way in every committed student. Each practitioner comes to truth after his or her own fashion. Liberation from suffering is guaranteed; it is only a matter of time.  

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

The Taste of Kiwi

I never tasted a kiwi until I was in my early teens. I knew of their existence, I’d seen them, even touched and smelled them at the grocery store. So I had direct experience of kiwi, but it was incomplete. My mother had tasted kiwi and she explained to me that it tasted like a combination of banana and strawberry.

I trust my mother; I figure she has my best interests at heart.

So I had a pretty good idea of what I would experience when I took my first bite of kiwi – I’d seen it, felt it, smelled it, and been told by a credible source what to expect.

Eventually I had my first taste of kiwi – and I was changed forever. From that moment forward there was no longer any question in my mind; I knew what kiwi tasted like, I had experienced it myself. The taste of kiwi was no longer a mysterious thing left up to my imagination. No longer did I think kiwi tasted like some combination of two other fruits.

Kiwi tastes like kiwi. In an instant, it became that simple.

There is something beyond my mind, of this I am certain. I like to call it my soul. I’ve had brief and incomplete experiences of my soul. I know people who have had more complete and more extended experiences with their souls. They tell me the soul is blissful in nature and that it can be experienced through the practice of yoga. They have no reason to lie to me – it would bring them no gain – I trust them. I desire this experience of Bliss. So I continue to practice yoga the way I’ve been taught by teachers whom I trust.

When I do have an experience of Bliss, I have no doubt that from that moment onward my life will be different.

I have faith in my practice because I have faith in my teachers. Every worthwhile experience I have deepens that faith, that trust, and firms my commitment to seeking out Truth for myself. I want to taste this Bliss instead of listening to descriptions others give. I want the experience for myself and I’m willing to work for it.