“On Lockdown in India, I Continue to Journey Inward”
The Yoga School teacher Alyssa Lee on her lockdown experience away from home, confronting uncertainty, and the beginning of a long, deep internal retreat.
They drape delicately around the curves of a woman, their vibrant hues second only to its intricate embroidery and gossamer weaves. Such are the renown silk saris of Mysore, India, favoured by the maharajas of yore as well as the upper echelons of Indian society today.
But ever since the Coronavirus crept into Mysore’s wider state of Karnataka in early March this year, the markets hawking fine silks, as well as the stately palaces that draw tourists from afar, have all grown quiet.
In the midst of it all, Singaporean yoga teacher Alyssa Lee found herself in limbo. She had arrived in Mysore on sabbatical with the intention to deepen her yoga practice. But when legislations came into force in the middle of March, non-essential businesses including the yoga shala she was practising at had to shutter in the midst of the lockdown. “First, the government closed all the big areas, then they started to say that it was illegal to gather, which is perhaps why we couldn’t go to class. Later in the week, our teacher told us that he had to close the studio. Depending on the situation, he said that the studio might open again in April,” says Alyssa.
“But today is April 10. The lockdown is supposed to lift on April 14 but there is talk of an extension,” she says, explaining that regulations in India, especially when it trickles down to the state and municipal levels, are not always clear and constantly shifting.
At one time, Alyssa felt the instinct to return home. “There was a lot of chaos during the week where we could have left for Singapore. At that time, I had a fever and I wasn’t sure if I could board a flight. My partner and I were also concerned about finding a place that would allow us to self quarantine or serve our stay-home notice. Eventually, there was a rise in the number of cases in Singapore…and we thought that perhaps Singapore would also end up in lockdown. In the midst of all this frenzy, we decided to wait a bit more. There was no need to rush,” she thought.
While her partner and herself had made the decision to stay on in India, her thoughts still turned to home. “To be honest, some days were not so comfortable for me. In this time of distress, I wanted to be near my parents.”
But even as she was continents away from her loved ones, adversity has a way of turning strangers into friends, and Alyssa found herself in the virtual company of other foreigners, similarly stranded in Mysore. Some were yogis like her while others were here to engage in bodywork training or study the linguistic intricacies of Sanskirt. They banded over a Whatsapp group, keeping each other abreast of legislative developments on the ground while providing useful tips on day-to-day living, be it the best place to purchase fresh produce or other products. “It’s comforting to know that we can help each other. Some of us have never ever met each other, but we’ve built friendships from there.”
With the lockdown in place, Alyssa is confined to the four corners of her rented apartment in a part of Mysore known as Gokulam, dubbed India’s capital of deep breathing. Here, over 40 yoga schools teaching Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Hatha and other disciplines of yoga draw practitioners from the world over. “I call Mysore a university. But you don’t have to bid for your courses here. You look around, see what courses there are, and plan accordingly given the time and budget you have to spare,” says Alyssa, who first came to Mysore five years ago on the advice of one of her yoga teachers Andrey Lappa, who counselled her to “do whatever you need and never stop learning.”
“The idea of having a practice is to have something constant. Likewise, change is always constant. To be constant in change is yoga in itself.” – Alyssa Lee
While being grounded in Mysore meant that Alyssa couldn’t head out for lessons, the lockdown itself had other lessons in stored for here. “It took a while to arrive at this idea of just acceptance – acceptance of the situation, acceptance that we can only wait and see how things go… in these times, it’s very common to be unsure of how we feel. It’s very important to check in with yourself and if you are not feeling so good, then it’s okay to not feel good. It’s okay if you need a little more time than usual,” she muses.
“For awhile, I found myself obsessed with reading the news to find out what was going on in India or Singapore. Is my family alright? Are my friends alright? But after awhile, I realised that I was looking too much at the external circumstances. There’s only so much you can do and you’ve got to be centred and grounded.”
For Alyssa, the ability to remain centred stems very much from her yoga practice: “The idea of having a practice is to have something constant. Likewise, change is always constant. To be constant in change is yoga in itself. No matter what is happening outside, you are the eye of the storm, you are still there. You remain rooted.”
Nowhere else is this more apparent than in Universal Yoga, which sees practitioners moving through various directions on the mat while remaining grounded. Having trained under Andrey Lappa, the founder of Universal Yoga, Alyssa is familiar with the ability to stay focused on a single trajectory. “In Universal Yoga, there’re a lot of tools that help you to come into ‘ekagrata’, Sanskrit for a single focus. Essentially, whatever you allow is whatever you give your attention to. If you pay attention to your practice, it gets better. If you give your attention to negative thoughts, they manifest and escalate.”
By stripping away the distractions of life as we knew it, this extended period of staying home also opens up an invitation to go deeper into oneself. “It’s really a time to slow down, more so for the people who haven’t slowed down. Now that I understand that there’s no need to rush into decisions and now that we have even more time than ever, I want to start on some personal projects and also projects pertaining to [bettering my] teaching practice.”
While Alyssa can’t be sure about what the future will bring, she remains hopeful that this too will pass. “This pandemic has taken away a lot of inconveniences. I will call them inconveniences as it’s not going to be for forever. One day, the border will open. The virus will be contained. Things have to change because change is constant…. and one day we’re going to miss this solitude that we’ve all been allowed to have.”
A theatre aspirant in her early youth, Alyssa has always been interested in the exploration of perspectives, movement and space. But the yoga practice has always been a little more special – the mat is her sanctuary and safe space. In 2014, Alyssa took her first Yoga Teacher Training in Universal Yoga with Andrey Lappa. The profound realizations from the holistic system sparked off an immense desire for her to plunge further into the pursuit of knowledge of ancient yogic sciences. The following year, Alyssa found home in Mysore, India, amidst a global community of practitioners, when she stumbled upon the Mysore-style practice of the Ashtanga Yoga method. To date, she continues to return frequently to Mysore, where she spends time practising with, and assisting, her beloved Ashtanga Yoga teacher, Vijay Kumar.
Alyssa hopes to be able to share the immense benefits of yoga and hold space in the same grain that she has been privileged to receive from her teachers. Her classes are gentle, dynamic yet playful, placing focus on building up awareness of the breathe and alignment of the mind-body connection.