May 25, 2013

Notes on Mysore Rooms, Mindfulness, Feminism, and Sex

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Photo source: ashtangatoronto.com
tldr: Mysore rooms must be safe spaces. Teachers must ensure that and are not supposed to look at their students in a sexual way. For students, there’s no need to suffer through bad and inappropriate adjustments. You can always just leave. Yoga is not a competition/ performance/ beauty contest.
Remember how I said I was going to tie in feminism and Yoga more? Well, tonight’s assistant teacher training gave me my first cue: We learned about how to act mindfully in the Mysore room. And while we didn’t talk about the issue from a feminist perspective, I wanted to give it some feminist thought.
Since a combination of factors makes Mysore rooms special places, teachers and their assistants are responsible for making them safe spaces. Safe spaces are spaces where you can let your guard down because there is no need to fear discriminatory behaviour. They are a concept I first came across in feminist writings. All Yoga rooms - not just Mysore rooms - need to be made such safe spaces. This is not only because certain poses might trigger memories of sexual violence or abuse, but because these rooms work along power structures, too. We might or might not have been aware of that, just like some of us might or might not have been aware of the fact that they’re feeling uncomfortable in down dog for a reason. 
In any given Mysore room, everyone should be able to practice, irrespective of their gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, body type or ailments. We should be able to feel comfortable in our bodies without having to fear even so much as a sexual thought coming our way from teachers or assistants. This is important because thoughts alone create energy - and I’m saying this in the least esoteric way possible, maybe just think of ‘vibes’ instead. That energy will waft through the room and affect its atmosphere, even when unintentional. Similar to aggressive or competitive behaviour maybe, or a strong smell that cannot be contained.
Traditional Ashtanga Yoga Mysore style is a very physical, sweaty practice, that requires one-on-one attention and hands-on adjustments. As someone once put it: “Assisting in a Mysore room is basically cattle roping.” Lying on top of each other for relaxation at the end of a practice is frequent and generally desired. Physical contact is intense, and both male and female assistants need to watch where they’re putting their stuff in assists (*hint*: far away from student bums!). This does not just apply to men: I have heard from many guys that they don’t like feeling female pubic bones rub up their backs, either. And from personal experience I can tell you that putting your chest onto strangers needs some getting used to, too.
So as much as we might like to lead monk-y, chaste lifestyles and think pure thoughts only, I doubt that this is the reality of what’s going on most of the time. In fact, as I just learned tonight, the mind is processing 30.000 automatic, involuntary thoughts every day. And we all know those statistics about how often we think about sex. Very often. So even when looking at half-naked people in a non-sexual way over multiple hours seems like an impossible task for Yoga teachers and assistants, they will have to make a conscious, concentrated effort. Tough one! But as David put it in different contexts: “Yoga is not supposed to be easy” and “your practice doesn’t end on the mat”, right?
Chances are that teachers and assistants will never hear the personal back story of their students in intimate detail. Instead, they will have to assume that what they are seeing in any given person is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The tip of a rather disturbed iceberg, really. “Never just assume that an adjustment is okay”, is how it our workshop leader put it tonight.
When we think about it, how we approach people makes all the difference. David likes to stress how important it is to be polite with students. And politeness like that automatically respects certain physical boundaries. As soon as these lines are crossed by teachers or their assistants, we students have every right to defend ourselves. And by defend I mean we can refuse adjustments, move our mats, or leave the room altogether and report inappropriate behaviour to someone in charge. There is no need to suffer through bad adjustments! If a teacher touches your private parts, (s)he is supposed to apologize. If this happens frequently, I would advise you to unroll your mat somewhere else. Yoga is supposed to make us feel better about ourselves, not worse.
Which leads me right to last point: It really doesn’t matter what you wear to practice, as long as you feel comfortable in it. If you need high-end sportswear to feel adequate, think about why that might be the case. Surely, there’s nothing wrong with looking good and treating yourself to nice equipment, but please don’t let others create fake needs and silly standards you feel you have to live up to. Don’t even worry about what they might think. It’s all in your head; in any decent Mysore room, no one would even notice, let alone care. Yoga is no competition, and Mysore rooms are certainly not catwalks. Every serious practitioner of Yoga will agree on that. No need to wear make-up, either. It will just melt away. And those heels that you’re wearing to “improve” your posture… once you realize what they are doing to your leg muscles, tendons and bone structure, you might want to consider getting svelter legs by committing to a regular practice instead. A regular practice in a well-attended to Mysore room where you will be welcome for the no frills, sweaty awesomeness that you are.

This post appeared first on Yogannina. The David I refer to is David Robson of Ashtanga Yoga Centre of Toronto.

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