Submitted by Megan Doyle Corcoran
Ten years ago, I traveled to India to study with my teacher, Pattabhi Jois. Until then, I’d seen him only at conferences, in the small spaces between bodies who packed halls to contort at his direction. I wanted more. I was 29, bendy, ambitious and anxious to learn.
I arrived in Mysore and enrolled at his shala the same day. I left with the unwelcome instructions to appear an hour before dawn the next day. Jetlag, I told myself, was a mental construct. Ashtanga yoga, I decided, would fix it.
At 5:15 or some dark hour, I unrolled my mat in the place that PJ assigned me among the others. They were as bendy, ambitious and anxious as I was. We were mechanical hothouse flowers in that room. We sought the eyes of this guru to affirm our practice. We fished for his attention; we gobbled it up; we tried to thrive on it. Thus, arms stretched long like ribbons through the sweat-soaked air and femur bones internally rotated just so. The sound of the ujjayi breath was a roar. We were deadset on impressing a man who knew better than to be impressed.
Two hours later, I rolled up my mat and headed for the lovely home I’d secured. I was staying with a family. They were empty-nesters with a spare blue-tiled room at the top of the stairs. I even had my own bathroom with a squat toilet. In my morning malasana, I could contemplate the various angles of the rooftops carved into the horizon and the orange, brightening sky. I loved that room. And I came to love my new family. Especially for two simple, metamorphic lessons they taught me.
The first? If you want to play tablas, don’t apologize for the ruckus you make while you learn. Your mistakes eventually turn into music, and music is a delight of life, that, like most of life’s greatest gifts, evolves from dirty beginnings. So play loud and proud, beginners! (And if your neighbors complain, well, tell them #YOLO and #itgetsbetter and #musicisagift. Then let me know if hashtags de-escalate neighbor complaints.)
The second lesson of my Indian family was not so direct. Still, it changed the direction of my yoga forever. When I arrived home from the shala on my first morning, my host father sat cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed, hands on his knees, a cup of tea to his right. Not wanting to disturb him, I crept along, hugging the wall, holding my breath, knowing that I would kick something over. I did and his eyes popped open. ‘Good morning! I’m doing my yoga. How was your yoga? Do you want to do more yoga with me?’ (He is an effusive man, and not just a prolific tea-drinker.)
On that first morning, I’m embarrassed to admit, I said no thanks. I hadn’t learned the music lesson yet. And I didn’t really understand what he was doing. I’d been doing yoga for 10 years at that point and I’d meditated a lot. But I didn’t call sitting with a cup of tea my ‘meditation’ and I didn’t call my meditation ‘yoga’. Plus, whatever meditation I did required so much intense focus that I would never interrupt my eminently interruptible monkey mind to have a chat with someone smack in the middle of it.
After a week or so, I started doing yoga with the family. It was sometimes just the father, sometimes the mother and occasionally both, tea nearby, in their old shirts and shalwar. And it wasn’t only about sitting with our eyes closed. They moved into safe and comfortable variations of the poses I’d just dislocated a shoulder to achieve. They breathed a lot but not loudly. They listened to what their bodies needed on that morning and responded. What they did, I joked, was Slow Yoga. In contrast to 10 sun salutations and 51 postures of a primary series practice (which was amended to secondary series after I’d been there a while and, sheesh, it didn’t get any easier). In contrast to power and flow and thunderous breathing in lycra. In contrast to fatigue and pain and a worry that I should be achieving more and being better and becoming some sort of yogini extraordinaire. Gah. It’s exhausting to remember. This family’s yoga was slow, mindful, appropriate. It was safe and it was effective. It was, actually, yoga.
The realization that these two were getting something from yoga– body and mind– while I, arguably, was being depleted, is what made me redirect my yoga study. So, for the last ten years, I’ve been exploring ways to make poses functional for my students, who, generally, are not as bendy and yoga hungry as I was. I’ve studied anatomy and physiology, alignment, energy work and massage therapy so I can better understand the body. I’ve worked with other teachers who share the instinct to protect the body while challenging it, who challenge the mind as well. I’m learning Viniyoga and yoga therapy so that I can apply what I’ve learned to more bodies with greater limitations. And in honor of my favorite Indian family, I teach Slow Yoga. It is yoga for the mind as much as the body. For the spirit as much as the musculature. It has made me and my students happier, healthier and stronger and I want to share it with you.
So if you’re looking for a practice that will respect your body while asking it to work with calm deliberation, please join me on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 8:45. My Slow Yoga class works with the breath and poses to create a foundation from which the body can gain strength, balance and movement; to create space where the mind can find focus and calm. All bodies are welcome and encouraged! We don’t, however, drink tea while we practice because I always kick it over.