After a late night and non-stop day, I consider cancelling my first Mysore session at the Ashtanga Yoga Centre of Toronto. That is, until a little research turns up the fact that the centre's director, David Robson, gets up at 3 a.m. to practice Mysore-style – the traditional way of learning Ashtanga, which involves progressing through an increasingly difficult series of poses – five mornings a week. He then spends another five hours working with students at what has become the largest Mysore program outside of India. I decide to suck it up and stick with the plan.
After I slowly slide open the door to the small studio, two things are immediately apparent. One, there's no new-agey music. There is, however, a lot of deep breathing. And two, it's more than a little sweaty in here. The temperature – which typically hovers around 30 – is largely self-generated.
There are 15 students of varying ages and body types. Two instructors constantly move between mats, gently easing a back bend here or a downward dog there. (Note: This is a very hands-on studio.)
"I quickly realized that if I wanted to teach Ashtanga right, it had to be Mysore-style," says Mr. Robson, who became enamoured with the method a decade ago after travelling to the Indian city of the same name. He admits it can be intimidating to walk into the studio for the first time during its drop-in hours – "You've got to be a certain level of brave to come here," he says – but maintains that the level of one-on-one instruction makes it ideal for beginners.
For the record, Mr. Robson – slight, soft-spoken and prone to such pronouncements as "I would never give up on you" – is about as non-threatening as it gets, especially for a fledgling yogi like myself. What's more intimidating is the time commitment. Beginners can get away with one or two 30-minute sessions a week, but more advanced students ideally require an hour and a half, six days a week.
Unlike most group classes, Mr. Robson and his team of instructors know most of the 120 students who come through each morning – as well as their injuries – and spend as much time as necessary guiding newbies through their poses. I've never had this much individual instruction in a group setting before. It's almost like having my own guru.
Mr. Robson starts me off with sun salutations. I do five repetitions of salutation A, followed by five repetitions of salutation B. After talking me through each pose, he encourages me to attempt them from memory – a central component of Mysore. (This enhances the meditative effect of the practice, he says, because if your mind starts wandering elsewhere – say, to the shirtless Beckham-type in front of you – you'll quickly come to a halt.) We move on to three sitting poses before it's time for shavasana.
I drop by for a second session at 7 a.m. on a Thursday, and the studio is already packed with wall-to-wall mats – nearly twice as many as my evening session, with an additional instructor making the rounds. As the series grows progressively difficult, it takes longer to master a pose before I can tackle the next one. "It's at your own pace, you don't have to keep up with anybody," says Mr. Robson. "If you need to stay longer on a certain pose, you need to stay longer." Case in point: he was once stuck on the "reclined upward foot diamond pose," which involves rolling your body upward whilst holding your foot with the opposite hand – for more than two years.
Instead of being bored by so many repetitions of so few poses – as opposed to the non-stop progression of a regular, instructor-led group class – my overloaded brain embraced the monotony of Mysore. And the perfectionist in me took pleasure in honing the most basic movements. With Mr. Robson correcting my form when necessary, I wasn't constantly checking it in the mirror. (There actually aren't any in this studio.) Nor was I risking injury by trying to force too-advanced poses. And after two 30-minute sessions, my downward dog has never been better.
Yes, I could just practise on my own, but that would mean missing out on the sense of community, not to mention constant access to an instructor. Would I try Mysore on a more frequent basis? I'm intrigued, but can't imagine committing to six days a week. "That's the ideal, but anything is better than nothing," says Mr. Robson. "It's just whether or not you want to change that much."
Special to The Globe and Mail