this post first appeared in Elephant Journal, 7/4/11. I'm posting again as Mysore 'season' for Ashtangis approaches.
While in Mysore, India, last winter, I met Ashtanga Yoga teacher and Sanskrit scholar Alex Medin, whose support of other yoga practitioners and love of the arts impressed me as much as his advanced asana practice. One of a select handful of Ashtanga teachers certified by Sri K Pattabhi Jois to teach the system, Alex now divides his time between his native Oslo where he helps to run a yoga center, a few teaching trips (if people ask) and regular visits to Mysore to practice at the Ashtanga Yoga Institute. Before returning to Norway earlier this year, he discussed his journey from boxer, ballet dancer and ‘thug’ to devoted yoga student, Ashtanga teacher and Sanskrit scholar.
Q: Who introduced you to Ashtanga?
Alex Medin: My son [Benjamin] and I, we had been at the archipelago, in Stockholm (Sweden), swimming, and I met an old friend of mine on our way home.. He was on his way to an Asthanga Yoga class and I’d always wanted to try yoga so we joined in. This was in 1995, so hardly anyone was practicing back then. The class was in an office and they teachers just cleared away a few desks, rolled out a yoga mat and told us to start. There were only five people, we three and the two teachers Charlotte and Gittan. They are still teachers in Sweden.
I remember laying in savasana after class and feeling, ‘Wow this is good! This is incredible, this just feels right! And I’ve basically been doing it ever since! I only got to study with them for two days, since I was going on holiday to Denmark, but managed to get a copy of Lino Miele’s latest book of primary series with the drawings by John Scott and started practicing myself. Once I came back to Stockholm I soon moved to London to be involved in some dance and theater work, but once I got there I was so fascinated with yoga and could not get enough of it.
Q: After dancing and theater, did you think 'this is it?' or did it take a while....
AM: I got totally immersed in the yoga scene. I was so tired of working as a dancer and an actor trying to constantly prove myself, but with no idea of who I really was. I was living for the stage and living a dream of wanting to be somebody, without the slightest clue of what I really wanted to do with my own life. So in a way I didn’t have a personal life, I was just trying to make it as an actor, and suddenly I realized this is totally crazy! So I thought, ‘maybe I should just focus on this yoga thing for a while, it feels good and it feels right!’ My plan was to get back into dancing and acting later but the whole yoga thing just took off!
I started practicing with John Scott at the City Yoga Center in London. I got a job as a butler for a woman called Angela Levin, who was the editor of The Daily Mail in London. My girlfriend and I could stay in their penthouse for free, [provided we] cook for them every day, take care of their son Daniel when he came home from school, and we were paid 100 pounds a week. We thought it was a great deal.
Then after four months I got an offer to a cook for Godfrey Deveraux, a self-proclaimed mystic who was living in a teepee in Ibiza and running a yoga retreat center called Windfire Yoga. It was a crazy time, I was living in a tent, cooking for up to twenty people every day on a one-cylinder gas stove. It was crazy, mad, but truly educational on many levels. Then I moved to Crete and worked for Derek Ireland for four months.
When I finally came back to London in ‘97 I started studying at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), because Eastern Philosophy fascinated me. Sadly I had dropped out of high school when I was 18 to focus on boxing and dancing so I had no official high school degree. But the dean at SOAS was kind and took me on as a trial student in Comparative Religion under the pretext that I would score high on all the exams. After having completed that first year and secured my place, I wanted to come here [to Mysore] and see what this Pattabhi Jois was like. I heard so many stories—good stories and bad stories—so I wanted to check him out.
Q: And you met Guruji?
AM: So I show up in Mysore on the full-moon-day in July of ‘98, which also happened to be his birthday. I went over to his house and said: ‘Hi I’m here for a year. I’m going to study Sanskrit and I would like to practice yoga with you.’ He looked at me with a sense of anticipation and surprise. Then he just laughed and said. ‘Ha, ha, you want to study Sanskrit?’
Let’s just say I came with a bit of an attitude. Guruji certainly felt it, but I asked if I could watch the following day and he said ‘OK.’ So the next day I show up, but I feel everybody is just huffing and puffing and remember thinking to myself, Jesus, what is all of this really about? I wasn’t that impressed at all.
I got bored after some time and went upstairs, where the other people were doing their finishing postures, to ‘meditate’ for a little. I did a few postures of my own and then sat down in the padmasana posture to contemplate what the energy was like. Gosh I was so spaced out at that time. I thought Guruji was asleep. It was all quiet and beautiful and then suddenly I hear: ‘Hey! What are you doing? Get out of here!’ He basically threw me out.
So I come back the next day and I ask if I can practice. I wanted to register for a month, but Guruji just said: “No, it’s full. Come back next month.” I come back the next month and then once again he says “No we are full. You wait one more month.”
So there I am at home practicing myself stupid. Desperately wanting to prove myself to Guruji and practicing First, Second, Third series’ ever day.
Q: First, Second and Third series?
AM: I’d been taught crazy things in Crete, London and Ibiza. They took me way too quickly through the series’, which triggered all my desire and ambition and fuelled all the other imbalances that I had. Guruji saw that, but after three months of sweating it out at home, I was hoping to finally show Guruji what I was all about. So I show up at his doorstep one afternoon.
‘So can I start now?’
He said, “No, next month.”
I said, ‘please.’ Then I turned to Sharath and asked him to help me. They exchanged a few words in Kannada and then Guruji looked at me and asked: ”You bring money?”
‘Yes!’ I said.
We then went upstairs. I enrolled and then started practicing the next day.
Traditionally you do Primary series for the first few weeks, and then maybe you are allowed to do intermediate. But after three weeks, I was so tired of waiting, I just do pasasana (first posture of 2nd series), thinking, ‘they haven’t really seen me, and understood how good I am.’
I get away with it on the first side, but then when I’m about to do the next side, I suddenly hear this loud voice filling the room: “Hey! What are you doing?” Guruji had woken from his little nap and shouted: “No, you’re not ready. You wait!” So I curled my tail and hoped I would be able to get another chance ASAP.
I saw other people doing intermediate series and I thought, ‘this is ridiculous: I can do so much better! Although the practice was slowly getting to me, I didn’t feel it. I was too busy anticipating what I wanted to do and hoping to prove myself rather than explore what was actually happening.
After 2 ½ months, I got really sick, my whole body fell apart. I thought I would come home in a body bag. Guruji smiled and said ‘very good,’ despite I was looking like a corpse. Then one week into my third month I was totally fed up. I approached him one afternoon and asked ‘if I could have my money back. I need to take a break!’
His immediate response was: “Not possible!”
I was really argumentative and pushed it. He kept saying “No. No, you registered. You stay and practice!”
I refused to give in, so eventually he said “OK, you go. When you come back you can practice the remaining three weeks you have left.”
I went to the Maldives to renew my Visa. I came back [to India] and traveled in the North for two months. Then I returned [to Mysore] and I did three weeks. I felt something had changed and I signed up for another month.
I was still on only Primary series, but something felt different. Something was falling into place. Toward the end of my fourth month, he eventually started me on Second Series. Crazy as it may seem, finally I felt as if Guruji was trying to help me. Here was somebody who saw all my imbalances and aggression. Previously all my attention was outward, but suddenly I was forced to look inward by the simplicity of the practice. He had tried to help me all along, but I was too busy trying to prove myself so I could never receive his simple guidance. Then one day, I felt he had really tried to help me and do me some good, so I bowed down to him and touched his feet. He just smiled and shook his head in Indian fashion. Then a whole new connection started between us.
I was starting my fifth month but I was running out of money. I went to pay and I said, ‘Guruji, I’m staying for another four months. I want you to know I’m truly grateful, and this is all the money I have left to practice for…how long can I stay for?
And he said, “So how long you staying in India? When are you leaving? Then he said “Ok, you stay.” He let me practice four months for the price of one! Here I was this thug and he had the compassion and patience to see me work it out.
Q: Then you went home?
AM: I went home… and my brother died in a tragic accident. I came back and took my sister here. We didn’t have much money, but once again he let me practice. We were here for two months and I paid for one. Once again I was so grateful, so touched. I thought, ‘this guy sees me in a way I cannot grasp, and he’s trying to help me.’
Q: When did he give you his blessings to teach?
AM: Authorization was different back then. People would ask if they could teach and he’d say “Yes, yes, no problem.” Guruji was never bothered with that. Then Sharath started to take control in 2001-2. People who were certified got a certificate with a stamp from the government. You fill out a letter with your father’s name, your mother’s name. Then you pay some money.
I got it in 2002, I hadn’t finished Third series yet. Then one day, I’m sitting in the office. I had come to register, and Guruji said, “You apply for certification.” So, I said ‘OK!’ I said ‘Guruji, $1000 is all I have,’ and he said “OK, give me a thousand.” So that was a big thing then. I think he certified me because I had this tremendous love of Sanskrit and he probably new I would never make any money from it, so maybe it was to help me I don’t know. Maybe also he liked the fact that it took me three months to bow down to him and he probably knew once I surrendered to him it was for life.
Q: So the asana and the Sanskrit have always gone hand-in-hand with you?
AM: There’s nothing that has shaped my mind like the Sanskrit studies. If there’s one thing that India can be proud of, it’s their ancient Sanskrit tradition. I’ve been truly privileged to study Sanskrit here with some great, great teachers. My mind was so scattered, lost and bewildered .... Yoga and Sanskrit provided a sharp tool to awaken my mind of its deep state of ignorance. Sanskrit is such a beautiful language, it has the most advanced grammar on earth, reflecting a sophisticated way of thinking that articulated the science of sound. [It’s based on] how life-breath moves through your mouth and how sound is formed from its contact with the tongue and movements of the lips. In a brilliant way it clearly defines verbs and nouns and their development from root syllables. It is the most beautiful language. They say it takes 10 years to say you know a little bit, and another 10 years to say you know nothing. So I’ve just started the period where I realize how little I know.
AM: And you’re on that road?
AM: Well…maybe many lifetimes. I feel that nothing has refined my mind more than Sanskrit. I was a young gangster, a boxer, a dancer, and a criminal in my youth. Having had that privilege to study this language, having had the honor of being close to some teachers that were patiently helping me out to remove some layers of ignorance. That is a godsend!
Q: Do you teach Sanskrit?
AM: It is so deep, so vast. Yes, I know the basic works and I can understand the Gita, and Sutras like this [snaps fingers]. But, to really penetrate deep into the shastras, the sciences, takes a lifelong commitment. And in all honesty I’m really not that interested in entering into the politics of western academia, where the majority of people are quite ignorant about the deeper aspects of Sanskrit.
Q: Kind of like yoga?
AM: Well I’ve taught Mysore style for more than 10 years now. It took me probably 10 years to get good grasp of what I was doing. The first five years I just did what I thought was right. Tried to be like Guruji and Sharath without really understanding how things work. But then the practice and teaching humbles you and if you pay attention some great insights may come in the process. Ashtanga yoga is so beautiful if you get it right from the beginning. If you are not too busy trying to work it all out at once. The practice takes time, life takes time and mostly we get things completely wrong. However there is a beautiful strength that comes from the simplicity of being that the practice can teach us, and when we learn to remain humble and receptive, we get it right, and then our whole life expands in a beautiful way.
Q: How do you mean, ‘get it right?’
AM: Treat the practice as a way to explore your breath and mind while staying in the postures. Learn to breathe through our many layers of discomfort, free up space from within and examine the subtle patterns of our mind. Deep within us is a clarity of being, a source of joy that is constant, but unfortunately we tend to cover that with our many projections, gunk and confusion If we start off and realize there is nowhere to go, nothing to get, it’s an exploration of the now, then I believe we get it right from the start and save ourselves a lot of trouble.
When there is stiffness in the body...say you can’t do a backbend. Then you feel it and [it’s] preferable learn to relate to that area in a new way. You have to bring all your awareness to the specific area of obstruction.
Once I went to Guruji and said, ‘you’ve broken my back,’ and his immediate response was, “good, very good.”
He said “You feel, you just don’t do. Feel your pain. Feel your difficulties, become the saksin (inner witness) and bring all of your awareness to your pain. Then after some time, the pain will change and you’ll feel a different foundation within you. I was treating the practice like a performance. I was like a wild stallion on the fields in spring, just wanting to run or do, but with no awareness of what was going on inside.
Q: Sharath has been talking a lot about the yamas and niyamas this year…
AM: There will be nobody home to receive yoga if we don’t learn to follow the yamas and niyamas… . There are subtle things that drive us, and we’re not transparent enough to figure out the greater truths of life that is why yamas keep us in our place to prevent the accumulation of negative karma. If we don’t practice the niyamas, we lack the purity of perception to receive yoga. It takes an element of insight and self-study to acknowledge that there’s a greater force at play in the world beyond our own will. Imbalanced needs will create further imbalances, but an awakening to grace will set us free and lift us up into a new way of seeing. Yoga is ultimately about how we learn to see things with clarity of perception rather than being driven by our many conditioned patterns.
Q: Do you have a particular approach to running a Mysore room?
AM: I try to be traditional. Just throwing postures at people doesn’t help. What is most important is to bring a presence to the room that people feel seen and observed. There’s nothing worse than a Mysore teacher trying to adjust everyone at the same time.
Q: How do you negotiate injuries?
AM: They should be avoided at all costs. They’re sad for everybody, for the teacher as well as the student. All injuries come from imbalances. And with a strong practice like Ashtanga, injuries do happen. It doesn’t have to be negative if we try to understand why they arise. Look at it as a way to find out what is going on and pay attention to that area and you might learn something great from it. Many times I’ve pushed myself to stupidity. I’ve been too hungry or too ambitious to ‘improve’ and neglected the fact that my body was stiff. [You have to] learn to be patient, and inquire: “What does it mean to dissolve the tension and layers we carry?” Rather than just pile on new ones, although they may keep us flexible in the body for a little while, until age catches up with us. Find out how fragile and sensitive we are. Then a real strength may come forth. Yoga settles when you take a step back and stop trying so hard.
Q: You’ve been through many changes in the community and Guruji passing…
AM: Guruji was sick the past two years of his life. Everyone knew it was coming. Some people were under the delusion that he would live for 100 years. Once it finally hits you, it hurts.
Q: How is it to be here now [in Mysore]?
AM: Sharath is doing a great job keeping the energy and presence. Sharath is coming into his strength and finding his place, what works and what doesn’t. He holds a really good place. He was side-by-side with Guruji for 20 years.
Q: You went to your first yoga class with your son? Now you are in Mysore with him again… how has that been?
AM: We’ve been together five times in the Mysore room. His enthusiasm has been up and down about the practice, but he has certainly taught me just as much about my life and my mind as the practice has. And come to think of it in a way, I have Benjamin to thank for the practice of yoga. If I hadn’t taken him to the beach that day, I may never have started!
When not traveling, Alex teaches Puro Yoga in Oslo at http://www.puroyoga.no/