Mysore-style yoga: one-to-one practice in a group setting
Mysore self-practice is the traditional way of practising ashtanga yoga, and offers a highly personalised approach without the cost of a private lesson
Geraldine Beirne, Yoga teacher and editor at The Guardian, 24 Febuary 2014
Are you disappointed by the lack of personal attention in yoga classes, or intimidated by the fast pace? There is another way to experience the benefits of yoga, without resorting to private classes.
Ashtanga vinyasa is one of the best-known styles of yoga and has been embraced by millions of westerners seeking a toned body and a calm mind. But the popular “led primary” classes – where teachers call out the postures of a dynamic set sequence – can be intimidating. And all too often, classes can be packed, with students having no chance of their poor alignment being corrected.
But there is an alternative. Mysore self-practice is the traditional way of practising ashtanga yoga and offers a highly personalised approach without the price tag attached to one-to-ones, and with all of the group energy of a conventional class. Here, you will be addressed by name, the teacher will know your practice inside out, and best of all, for me at least, this “class” is quiet – there’s very little talking and no new age music.
Most yoga studios carry mysore sessions on their timetables, but many people are put off either because they don’t know what it is or they don’t fancy the idea of a three-hour class that starts at 6.30am. In fact, you can drop into a mysore session at any time and stay for as long as you wish. For beginners, this could be half an hour, and for the more advanced up to an hour and 45 minutes. It is a wonderful way for beginners and advanced practitioners alike to develop a self-practice that you can then take anywhere.
Mysore is named after the south Indian town in which the late K Pattabhi Jois taught from the late 1930s until his death in 2009. But today, teachers do not lead the students through the sequence with generalised instructions or demonstrations. Instead, experienced students turn up and get on with it. Complete beginners are taught the sun salutations and then the first few postures of the standing sequence. When they have learnt this, the teacher adds a new posture when he or she feels you have memorised the sequence so far and you are competent (in so far as you can ever be competent) in it. And if you forget, the teacher is there to help you.
Practising in this way gives you the space to focus. The cue to move on to the next posture comes from your own breath, instead of a teacher’s instructions. Students can therefore spend a little longer working at their own pace on something they find challenging. In effect, you become your own teacher. If there is something you are unable to do, the teacher will give you an easier version.
Sessions are characterised by the sound of ujjayi breathing – a powerful, rhythmic, “heating” breath. Everyone is working at their own pace, so it might appear – to a novice – that everyone is doing something different. This, arguably, might cut down on the element of competition and comparing which can creep into any form of group exercise. Little verbal instruction is given, and when it is given, it is whispered, for the benefit of the one person it is intended for.
“Adjustments” are an important part of mysore self-practice. This is where experienced teachers use their hands to guide your body into the posture to correct alignment. You have to really trust someone who encourages you to go up into a headstand for the first time.
The reward for practising at least three times a week is increased fitness and a calmer mind. Many people progress from primary to second series or even third (there are six series altogether, although only a handful of people in the UK practise fourth series).
Students are required to face distractions and the wandering mind in order to come back to a focused state, instead of passively listening to a teacher or watching others. This makes it a more internal practice; a meditation in motion. If the purpose of yoga is the stilling of the mind (as written by Patañjali in the Yoga Sutras), mysore self-practice can help you achieve this.
As a friend and long-time mysore ashtangi said, this practice is a great way to start the day – and once it’s done, you’ll be ready to face anything.