14 April 2009
I am not particularly adept at book reviews. If I like a book I tell people "just get it, you'll like it" and they usually do. So I'll tell you, get Yoga School Dropout, you'll love it. I couldn't put the book down and for any of you thinking of going to India to study yoga, this book is a must read because Lucy names names!
Yoga School Dropout is Lucy Edge's travel memoir of going to India to study yoga (much like my India travel stories here) so I could totally relate to what she was writing about, especially when she gets to Chennai to study at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram for a month.
I've read most of the books in the yogini-goes-to-India-to-find-herself genre (or you might call it the angst-ridden-yogini-in-general genre) such as Enlightenment for Idiots, Holy Cow, The Yoga Teacher, and Eat Pray Love, and I think Lucy's book tops them all. Lucy is authentic and insightful and her authenticity will strike a chord with a certain type of yoga practitioner. One reviewer wrote that Lucy is "neither boringly cynical nor stupidly gullible, she's open minded, warm, and funny."
Lucy is a former advertising executive in London and travels to India for a yoga school pilgrimage. She went to Pune for Iyengar yoga and Osho, Mysore for astanga, Chennai for viniyoga, Amma's ashram in Kerala, Auroville (built by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother) in Pondicherry, and other places along the yoga version of India's Silk Road. She thought she would return from India a Yoga Goddess, but when she got there she found the western obsession with self-perfection shallower than expected (particularly in Mysore with the astangis). Lucy went to India to conduct her personal yoga experiment but ended up writing a book that is love letter to India.
I have no experience with the yoga schools that Lucy visits other than the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram but I can tell you that her writing about Chennai and KYM is spot on, as the British say. What struck me is that Lucy had the same ephiphanies about yoga and India as I did.
At first Lucy calls the yoga at KYM "Pensioner's Yoga", "every movement so slow my granny could have done it." I felt Lucy's frustration because while I was already familiar with the KYM style before I arrived, when I was there I could see how westerners accustomed to a more dynamic yoga style would view it as yoga for old people until one understood how deeply transformative the style is. I met more than a few former astangis at KYM who told me that the style healed their bodies and now it was the only practice they did.
Lucy thought she would definitely become a yoga school dropout because of KYM -- the yoga was too slow, there were too many questions, she didn't understand the Sutras classes, and she had a hard time understanding "Tamglish", the combination of English and Tamil syntax that Tamils speak.
It was not until Lucy is in her Sutras class one day that her mind becomes crystal clear (her words.) The Boss (as we called Mr. Sridharan, KYM's manager and Desikachar's friend for over 25 years) was talking about duhkha (distress or suffering) which is caused by one of the five kleshas (obstacles.) Lucy suddenly realizes that she has been laboring under avidya, suffering under some severe misapprehensions. She realized that her problems were her own expectations, not KYM or the teachers. She had set up all types of goals for herself (like performing advanced postures) that she was totally unaware of what was going on in her own body (she had a neck problem that started in Mysore when she spent a lot of time trying to perfect headstand.) She remembers what Kausthub (Desikachar's son) had taught in his class:
"'Today asana has been made into a photograph. There is no difference between this and gymnastics. We see calendars with photographs of someone balancing on a rock in a headstand...even naked yoga. But asana is not a performance, asana is what happens in the posture and afterwards. A circus man can do many postures -- this is not asana.'"
Kausthub encouraged them to cultivate sthiram (stability) with sukham (being comfortable in the pose.) I remembered these teachings very well -- that if a practitioner is not 100% in each, you are not practicing yoga. And if you do not have both qualities in the breath and the mind as well as the body in practicing yoga, you are merely doing acrobatics, not yoga.
Months after she first arrived in India for her yoga journey Lucy finally realizes at KYM that she had only been operating on 1% sthiram and sukham, that she needed to start practicing this at all times. She says, "I had to learn 'to be', to be patient, to be here, content with where I found myself, both on and off the mat." It is only then that Lucy begins the slow process of arriving. As Sir (Desikachar) told her class (and my class), "We begin to open our eyes only when we are in trouble." With this ephiphany Lucy spends the rest of the course with a different attitude and after KYM travels to Auroville and Ramana Maharshi's ashram in Tiruvannamalai.
After five months in India Lucy realizes that her yoga quest is over. She asks herself what her motivations were, wasn't it all just an escape from real life? Wasn't being that Yoga Goddess with 18% body fat an escapist fantasy? She realizes that the transformation she was looking for wasn't going to be had by enrolling in yet another yoga school, buying another yoga book, or getting another certificate. Lucy realized she had to change her perspective. She remembers what someone told her that "change only occurs when we become what we truly are, not when we are trying to be something we are not. Change can't happen when we are trying to escape our true nature." She realizes that the most inspirational people she met in India were the ordinary people like the railway workers, the teachers, the government workers. She found these people so inspiring because their yoga practice stretched beyond their mat. Yoga for them was a way of living, not a physical goal, and if being "ordinary" could make one happy, she wanted it. Lucy fell in love with India and its people and decided to concentrate on the small stuff, just like she learned from her "ordinary gurus" -- trying to increase the moments of seeing clearly and choosing wisely in everyday life.
Like Lucy, I also found my yogic inspiration in the people of India. When I attended the month long intensive at KYM in 2005 I did not go to the tea that was scheduled for us on the last day but instead went off on my own -- you can read about my inspiration here. Like Lucy, I returned home a different person and in my opinion, a better person.
Lucy did not return to London as the Yoga Goddess she thought she would become but she did not feel like a failure. In fact her "failure" at achieving yoga perfection (whatever that meant) had set her free into being content and knowing that happiness is always available, you merely have to look inside.
I emailed Lucy after I finished YSD and told her how much I enjoyed it. YSD has not yet been published in America and Lucy told me that she is working on getting it to the American market. I bought YSD from an online bookstore in England. Lucy has a website and also has a new book coming out in August.
Krishnamacharya said that "yoga is about Life" and in Yoga School Dropout Lucy Edge wrote a travel memoir that personifies his words.