The Ashtanga School of Life

Yoga practitioner and teacher, Maya Rao, uses her practice as a tool to manoeuvre the changes and experiences of life and motherhood.

I have always been a seeker. From the time my twin sister and I were very young, our mother would enroll us in Sadhu Vaswani camps that were held over the summer, where we would meditate among other things. I remember enjoying those experiences even at a young age. When I entered my teens, I started to experiment with other things. I became interested in dance and movement, joined a dance group and invested in fitness, martial arts and weight training. The desire to start yoga came back when I was living in Mumbai and working as a fitness trainer. Yoga was reintroduced at the Kaivalyadhama Institute in Mumbai — it was a form of therapeutic yoga. This complemented my fitness and martial arts training, and the thing I loved most about yoga is that I got to practise it every morning, overlooking the sea on Marine Drive, and this would calm my mind every day.

I first heard of Mysore-style Ashtanga Yoga from a friend who lived in New York and practised Ashtanga there. She encouraged me to learn this style as she felt I’d be good at it. This was in 2001, and you couldn’t learn Ashtanga Yoga anywhere other than in Mysore. Her words stuck with me but it took me three years to get to Mysore. I had moved back to Pune and was practising Iyengar Yoga, and really moving deep into asana practice. I never forgot my friend’s advice to go to Mysore, so I decided to try Ashtanga and made my first trip to Mysore to spend three months at the shala. 

Practising Ashtanga

I called the shala in Mysore and Sri Pattabhi Jois answered  the phone. I said I  wanted to come to Mysore and practise with him. He said, “Yes, yes, you come.” I asked how much the fee was and he repeated, “You come.” So I packed my bags, didn’t know what to expect and arrived in Mysore. It was 2004 and Mysore didn’t have all the apartments and amenities that it has now. Back then, students rented an old house and Gokulam wasn’t even fully developed. We would walk to the shala at 4 am for led classes and I enjoyed the silent contemplation of those morning walks to the shala. That year, all the Indian students, including me, would practise in the afternoon, and we would only attend the morning led classes on Fridays and Sundays. I actually really liked practising at the shala in the afternoon. Back then, it was only me and a friend of mine who came back every year for a few months to practise. So it was the two of us and a few local Mysoreans, and we loved the almost-one-on-one practise with Sharathji and Sri Pattabhi Jois. Some consider Sharathji a strict teacher but that was not my experience. He was patient with me. I  had no expectations and received my teachings like a dedicated student. It was only a few years later that Sharathji moved all the Indians (there was only a handful of us then) to the morning slot. 

Ashtanga changed my life. I was hooked. I enjoyed the mental calm and the physical ability which this practice combined simultaneously. I have been practising the method for 16 years through all the changes that life brings, and it is my anchor. Ashtanga is an amazing tool to manoeuvre life. It is a tool for us to practise quietly, be with ourselves, listen to our breath and flow with that life force. Over time, when we understand what is happening to our body, we realise that it is an expression of our inner world and mental state. It’s not always easy to use this tool. After all, who wants to do the same thing every day? But, I can tell you from experience, I feel this same practice in new ways every day because I am not the same person every day and my practice is relevant to how I feel each day. So it might be the same practice and movement, but each day feels different.

Most of us want information and we often gather that information externally. We don’t listen to our feelings, and our inner truth and intelligence. Over time, by practising Ashtanga, I have learned to stay focused and become disciplined, so I can feel and know my own truths. As I change constantly, the practice of yoga has also changed for me. It started with perfecting and knowing the asanas, fine-tuning the physical and releasing the things we store in our bodies. It then evolved into understanding and honing the subtle power of the breath within me and finally, after years, it gave me glimpses of a state of union. 

Having said that, I am in no ways perfect. I bite my fingernails all the time (metaphorically speaking) and do not consider myself a yogi but rather, a student of life. Ashtanga connects me to my core, my essence and my truth. The doing (daily practice), the understanding and then the embodiment of yoga has happened for me at different stages. When does one embody yoga? What does that even mean? I had so many questions along the journey to yoga but I have come to realise that it is a journey that is constantly changing and for me, it’s no longer about finding the Truth, but rather, it’s about finding My Truth.

Motherhood and Surrender

I truly embodied yoga when I became a mother. The experience of motherhood redefined yoga for me completely. In a way, it helped me embody my yoga practice. It made me live yoga and experience patience, acceptance, love, surrender on a level that I didn’t grasp before motherhood. Being a mother made me accept that I can’t do things perfectly, the way I desire and when I want to. Having to give up control, surrendering to my son who has his own force pretty much like nature,  is not always easy or possible.  My son enabled me to recognise and dissolve my false ego and shifted my consciousness beyond just myself. 

At my core, I am not attached to anything. In my role as a mother or even a teacher, I see myself as a guide. I can show and teach my students what I have learned but I also encourage them to take responsibility for themselves and their journey. We have to find our spiritual path on our own. A teacher can only guide. Once we find that path, it is an amazing learning experience. Yoga is the same as Ayurveda and Homeopathy, the principles of the practice remain the same but how they are applied and used by each individual will vary depending on the individual. Similarly, with a yoga practice, one has to apply the practice based on the individual. It’s why the Mysore-style practice works. The teachers can guide and adjust but the responsibility to make progress lies with the student. 

I’m not attached to the idea of being a yoga teacher and I don’t present myself or live my life to adhere to the preconceived notions of what a yoga teacher should be like or do. I apply the same logic to motherhood. I am not attached to the idea of what a mother should be like. One just is, in every moment. At times, I do wonder if I respond to and communicate with Imaan in the best way possible. However with the practise of yoga, I have learnt to drop it, leave it and know and trust that my feeling in the moment was real.

Being a Yoga Teacher

I feel that doing a 200 or 500-hour teacher training course is a starting step. It teaches you the mechanics but it takes a few years of dedicated practice for you to understand the practice and translate that into your teaching. Yoga is not academic. Many people want to study the Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita… and feel that the knowledge makes them a superior teacher. While these are relevant texts and a brilliant guide to live our lives, the actual experience of the practice will bring you clarity and your own light. Then you impart a lot more. The experience will also make you more sensitive and understanding to other people as you can understand their practice based on personal experience. If you want to teach yoga, my advice is to go to the source. The energy transmitted from that source is of a much higher vibration and just through osmosis, learning happens. 

I have come a long way from the physical practise that gave me discipline and focus. Developing mental stamina and endurance to stay present creating awareness. I reached my soul, the heart where we rest. This is why I practise yoga. To engage with this world and its multitudes in my truest state. Yoga is a way of life. It is a lifelong practice and it will constantly change. We need to be open and aware and allow that change to happen to truly see things as they are. My son has been one of my greatest teachers and has helped me to mature in so many ways. I am now able to see most experiences as learning and growth. That is my path, my dharma. 

Maya Rao is a Bali-based yoga teacher. To Study with Maya, email her at remembermaya@gmail.com

November 2, 2020

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