One of the most powerful aspects of studying yoga in Mysore at the KPJAYI is that an unwavering commitment to the practice schedule is virtually assured. At home, practice happens for me when it happens — at some time in the morning. After another cup of coffee, or once I’ve sufficiently warmed up, maybe answered an email or two. I will definitely get to my mat, but my start time is something of a variable.
Here, there is a very strict schedule that removes all dallying and keeps the rest of the day on track toward a reasonable bedtime. There is nothing more important than waking up on time in a satisfactory condition, having coffee, and moving one’s bowels before setting off to the Shala at the appointed time, which is to say at least half an hour to an hour earlier than the time written on one’s practice card. As varied and international as the practitioners here undoubtedly are, the only variation in the aforementioned priorities would be whether or not you take coffee.
This peak time for rising and beginning yoga practice is called Brahma muhurta. As the lynchpin of our daily quest in Mysore, it is an unquestionable constant in the lives of all serious Ashtanga practitioners. Whatever happens at your home shala, when you come to Mysore for practice, you will be getting up and at ’em at a particular time in the morning. The earlier, the better. In fact, there’s a distinct covetous vibe where the early time-slots are concerned. We all want in there as early as possible because it is traditional to practice before dawn.
Now this term, traditional, is a slippery adjective where Ashtanga yoga is concerned, but in this context it is pretty straightforward. Brahma muhurta refers to a special time in the early morning that is considered most auspicious for yogis to begin their practice, when the mind is inherently still. The literature is full of references to this time. Here is one:
brahme muhurte cotthaya rama-krsneti ca bruvan
natva gurum bhuvam caiva tato bhumyam padam nyaset
One should rise at brahma-muhurta, chant the holy names of Lord Krishna and Lord Balarama, and bow down before one’s guru. Only then should one place his feet on the ground.
I love the specificity of the muhurta, which refers to a period of time. 1 Muhurta = 48 minutes. 1 day = 24 hrs = 30 Muhurtas. Brahma-Muhurta is the 2nd last Muhurta, or 1 hour and 36 minutes, before sunrise.
For me, observing the Brahma muhurta means concentrating on taking the right action at every juncture to ensure I’m in good condition for this time. My regular start time has been 0500 for most of the last two months, which means I arrive at 04:15 and am waiting in the lobby for the first finishers of the earliest bunch. It has been wonderful to sit quietly and watch the 50 – 80 dedicated yogis breathe their way through their respective practices, a sea of breath, sweat and vigour. We are called by Sharath with a “one more,” indicating a spot in the room is now free and the next person waiting should go take it up. It looks like I’ll be joining the 04:30 bunch starting next week, which of course means getting to the Shala at 03:30.
For the 04:30 Led Primary, things are a little different. We must be up at least 3 or 4 muhurtas before dawn in this case, because we are arriving at the Shala at around 0300 to queue for an auspicious practice place (ie, not in the changing room). Today I was up before 2am, with the sounds of the tropical rain that really amped up the sense of pathos.
Now in my third and final month here this season, I’m fully accustomed to the no-nonsense early schedule. My husband and I get up around 2am and begin our routine of waking up. Simon is “up like a linty” whereas I require a longer period of time to feel fully alive. Truth be told, waking up early has always been a real struggle for me and I am the first to admit that my condition upon waking is rather pathetic. Simon brings lemon water, then coffee, and at some stage my eyes open and I’m able to contemplate my wretchedness, then do something about it.
When I get up and walk to the bathroom, as I get older, I am noticing a sense of humour creep into play; whereas, in my 20s and early 30s, the early wakeups would be no laughing matter. The years of experience are adding up in a way that is actually funny. It is a mix of gratitude for having the opportunity to be here, to be healthy and uninjured, coupled with feeling this sore at such a bonkers time of day, which is really the middle of the night, facing the daily task of doing extremely challenging feats of physicality. Backbends, leg behind the head, arm balances, all in the Brahma-muhurta. I manage to brush my teeth and thank god for my fun, bright-eyed, supportive, coffee-bringing husband.
There are many views on stretching in the morning before practice. I do what I have to do. The rest of the day is a prologue to the main work that happens in the Brahma muhurta, and every marginal act in support of feeling good in this time is doubly appreciated in my tissues. It is hard to do this practice first thing in the morning until one day you can’t imagine it any other way.
Walking to the Shala in cool darkness this Autumn 2016, I often think of my first year here back in 2003 when I was really just a kid and it was literally all I could do to get up early, often missing my appointed time. With each trip to Mysore, the Brahma muhurta seems more accessible, natural, and appealing as the moment for prayer.