Mysore: The Answer to the Universe

Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory. ~ Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.

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Mysore, probably the most overlooked approach to Ashtanga yoga, is invaluable for progression in personal practice, making it one of yoga’s best-kept secrets.

But before we dive deeper into the nitty-gritties of this incredible yet underutilized approach, a thought for modern-day yogis:  For some, yoga seems to be just “exercise” — a way to become more flexible, maybe even work on core strength, perhaps learn to “chill” here and there.  For many others, however, yoga is a life long journey of self-discovery, reflection, and growth.  The foundations we set, and the lessons we learn on the mat transcend to our everyday lives. As we explore the body and it’s capabilities, we also explore our limitations — in all aspects of ourselves — and how they change over time.

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For quite a while, the yoga studio where I practice was offering 6 a.m. classes every weekday morning and I was pretty religious about going. 6 a.m. may seem ridiculous, and it kind of is, but it was really the only time I was guaranteed to be free of other obligations. No excuses, except my self. Then one day, three of the five weekday morning classes suddenly disappeared from the schedule, with something new and curious in their place: Mysore.

WTF is Mysore? I had no idea when I first saw it, and had to ask around. Even after getting the inside scoop, it seemed, well, boring. You mean I just go there and practice at my own pace? I can do that at home, right? Pointers from an instructor? Kinda cool, but still, I love the flow and energy and oneness of a kick butt group class. So in my unreceptive closed-mindedness, I didn’t go to Mysore for a while. A long while. I let it simmer, thinking about if this was worth waking up at 6 a.m. for. But when I tried it… like really tried it… lo and behold…my mind was blown.

One of the exciting (and habit-forming) aspects of yoga is that there is always progress to be made. The journey is never complete, yet continuously rewarding. When we are engaged in a regular yoga practice, we continue reaping the benefits, time and time again.  What other “exercise” or “sport” can boast endless rewards for practice?  What’s more is the realization that our limits are merely mental and that with sheer determination in our practice we can power through them.  Poses that felt impossible only weeks ago start to take shape.

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So what exactly is Mysore?

Let’s start at the very beginning (it’s a very good place to start) with a dash of yoga history!  Ashtanga yoga, often called a modern version of classical Indian yoga, is a beautiful, ancient system of living that was first taught in the Yoga Korunta by Vamana Rishi.  It was then imparted to Sri T. Krishnamacharya in the early 1900’s by his Guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari, and was later passed down to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois when he began studying under Krishnamacharya in 1927.  It is this man, Pattabhi Jois, the “Father of Mysore,” who developed the specifics of the practice and introduced them to the world as essentially a deeper, introspective alternative to modern yoga classes.  And it’s no coincidence that the name rhymes with “try more!,” “high score!,” and “by Geor(ge)!”

Okay, maybe it is.  The practice is actually named for the place of its creation.  Referred to as the Ashtanga yoga capital of India, Mysore is the country’s third largest city.  Located in Karnataka State, it is a world-class destination for the thousands of tourists who come each year to not only visit the region’s palaces and temples, but most importantly to study yoga.  Instructors here are specialized in teaching the Ashtanga yoga based on Pattabhi Joi’s understanding and teaching of yoga, which he so eloquently explains as: “…a way of life and a philosophy, [which] can be practiced by anyone with inclination to undertake it, for yoga belongs to humanity as a whole. It is not the property of any one group or any one individual, but can be followed by any and all, in any corner of the globe, regardless of class, creed or religion.”

While you chew on that magnificence, let’s talk more about Mysore and how it differs from the yoga classes you might be used to.  Traditional yoga classes are usually set up so that the focus is on a teacher, some poses, maybe even the music at times.   Generally, participants are guided through a pre-established set of asanas (poses) and explore only the material offered by the current instructor in an environment where rhythm and sequence is already set. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with a yoga class centered around flow – they’re my drug of choice. But there comes a time in your practice when you need to go deeper into yourself and into the asanas to really take your practice to a whole new level.  Enter Mysore, which offers an environment where one’s focal point can shift inward in a self-paced practice within a group setting.  Talk about the best of both worlds.  Let’s break it down a little further.

In essence Mysore focuses on the individual’s practice.  Mysore still uses the Ashtanga sequence of asanas (poses).  But! (and it’s a big one) instead of being led through these by a teacher, individuals guide themselves through each pose — learning about one’s mind and body, one’s limits (and soon…lack thereof), focusing on breath and moving to his/her own rhythm.  Each asana is learned separately, allowing participants to explore each posture and the depth they can reach within it before deciding when to move on to the next.

Mysore = Self-practice in a group setting to accelerate breakthroughs in body and mind.

Rarely will you hear talk of ability and achievement from a Mysore guru, as these are not the focus of the practice.  So perhaps it is ironic that not only does this specific technique set the foundation for a deeper, stronger practice but it also allows for accelerated improvement and flexibility — helping people go from their first yoga class to a hard-core yogi in mere months.  In a Mysore the teacher is seen more as a mentor; an advanced practitioner who is there to give hands-on guidance through the individual poses, offer adjustments, instruction (and encouragement) to help each yogi get the most out of his or her practice.  This method insures all students get exactly what they need out of their practice, regardless of their level of expertise or experience.  Mysore is meant to be incorporated into a daily routine with days off only on Saturdays, new and full moons (at least until Lululemon releases it’s rumored werewolf line…).

Yoga is possible for anybody who really wants it. Yoga is universal…. But don’t approach yoga with a business mind looking for worldly gain. ~ Pattabhi Jois

Anything can be achieved with practice and time.  Pattabhi Jois practiced his own form of yoga until his death in 2009, at the ripe old age of 93.  He had a strong following that continues to grow, as more and more people experience, and get hooked on, Mysore yoga.

This yoga should be practiced with firm determination and perseverance, without any mental reservation or doubts.  ~ The Bhagavad Gita.

The only way to truly convince yourself of the benefits of Mysore is to give it a try.  It is so much more than just a style.  If you take the time to deepen your practice with Mysore, you’ll begin to see benefits arrive not only where twisting yourself into a human pretzel is concerned, but in all areas of your life.

The father of Mysore said it best with “Yoga means true self-knowledge.”  Take the leap.  Go deeper.  Reach farther.  Allow yourself to be lifted to higher levels.  I double downward dog dare you.

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Editor’s note: This is a guest post new Daily Cup of Yoga contributor, Reid J. Robison, MD MBA. Reid is a psychiatrist, meditation practitioner, yogi, humanitarian, and artist. He’s CEO and co-founder of a venture-backed tech company called Tute Genomics, and is on a crusade to personalize medicine. As a father of five kids, including particularly lively 6-year-old twins, Reid uses mindfulness meditation and yoga to stay sane in our fast-paced, tech-crazed society and find stillness and clarity for the soul. You can find him occasionally plugged into the grid online through Instagram or Twitter.

5 comments

  1. the third photo in this article is a dharma Mittra student in a dharma Mittra studio doing a dharma Mittra headstand… if yoga photos had fact checking you’d be way off (and relatively disrespectful) to have this in a Mysore article. they are completely different lineages.

  2. annoyedashtangi Thanks for your fact checking. You’re right that it’s in the Dharma Yoga Center, and I took that photo a few weeks ago (I’ll be in their training program this summer). I’m the author of the article, and these are all my photos. The top one is of my twins, and the others are of me. I realize that the Dharma photo is not a Mysore photo, but I chose it to just show that practice makes progress, and “Poses that felt impossible only weeks ago start to take shape.” But I can certainly see where you’re coming from! PS- I like your username… almost an oxymoron 🙂

  3. Thank you for this article. I’m still pretty new to my practice, and this has me looking forward to the journey ahead.

  4. I loved your article. Thanks for sharing.
    I agree with you when you say that for a lot a people Yoga is a exercise and for others it’s a way of living… I thinks it’s both things. Yoga can make you connect not only with yourself, your inner you… But with everything around you. It makes you strong (that’s why it’s considered an exercise), focused and mentally stable.
    Of course it’s a huge journey and It can make you happy and strong for what’s ahead. I just love what Yoga can do for you.

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