On first sight the small town of Mysore is a quiet pleasant place, not much different from the rest of South India. On most corners, coconut sellers stand by piles of green shells hacking off lids to quench the thirst of passers-by.
But, if you stop to watch their stream of customers, you get a clue as to what makes Mysore the most important place in the world for a significant and growing number. Amongst the everyday locals, on their way to and from work or school, are a great number of pale, slim tourists, sipping wearily on straws.
For many of these people, who often stay for months, Mysore is the ultimate Mecca. There are no religious monuments or sights – people come for yoga. It’s here that the most demanding, physical form of the discipline Ashtanga was born.
Sri Patababhi Jois is the guru credited with inventing Ashtanga and the guy who taught the likes of Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Sting their moves. His school, in an affluent suburb of the city, is where most Ashtangis flock.
Although the huge complex is reminiscent of a prison or boarding school, very few try to break out of the strictly disciplined timetable. Students practise seriously – the average passer-by might say obsessively – up at dawn for two hours of bending, stretching and jumping, all to the rhythm of heavy Darth Vader-like breathing.
Very little else but yoga can be heard in the chatter of surrounding curry houses and chai shops, where bright-eyed colleagues muse on their bandas and their drishtis and their mudras. It’s a hallowed atmosphere and if you're not completely wedded to the idea of a life defined by a small, rectangular mat you may find it a little oppressive.
It that’s the case, there are other places in Mysore to learn the non-stop sequence of positions. Down a leafy side-road opposite a driving school is the small ashram, Shtalam8, run by Ajay Kumar. In not too many years, Ajay has gone from being a kid hanging out in the city’s backstreets to commanding one of the most popular Ashtanga schools in the country, with students coming from all over the world to study with him.
Ajay was just eight years old and trying to do a few moves when he caught the eye of some Western students, who grouped together and paid him to have yoga lessons. It paid off. He learnt fast and is now one of the youngest teachers in Mysore – just 25.
He’s not your usual guru, with a diamond earring and sharp shirts; he could be leading a Bollywood heist not a yoga class. And he’s surprisingly human for someone devoted to the spiritual path; complaining of indigestion from his late lunch or troubles with his wife or how exhausted he is by all the work his students are giving him. But he is devoted – and so are the people who come to study with him.
Every day his sweating students pack into a tiny room, so close to one another it’s difficult to know if that drop sliding down your leg is your own or that of the Korean next to you. It can seem more like circuit training then a path to Nirvana, with back-bending workshops, squatting sessions and press-ups. And then there are the ‘adjustments’. Ajay and his assistant jump on and press and contort student’s bodies into shapes that lead to yells and the very occasional four-letter word. This is frowned on; apparently the practice room is a holy place.
Ajay takes pretty much every type of student in, not just the devoted Ashtangis who are finding their way here in greater and greater numbers. Local housewives, young men from nearby Bangalore, retired teachers, girls on gap years and even beer-buyers on a break from a business trip have all jumped back, stretched up and folded over here.
This doesn’t mean, however, that learning is easy. Shtalam8, and indeed Ashtanga yoga, is not for the faint-hearted. Sweat will flow, bones will crack and the room will start spin. But if you want to have a go, with someone who’ll whip you into shape and doesn’t seem to mind if you’re usual morning routine is an Alka Seltzer and a bacon sandwich, then head to Mysore and look for the guru with the diamond in his ear. You might even pick up some enlightenment along the way.
Kathleen McCaul helped set up the Baghdad Bulletin, Iraq's first post-war English language newspaper. She currently lives in Sao Paulo. Her debut novel, Murder in the Ashram, is available on Amazon now.
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