A Lesson in Learning
Ashtanga Yoga Teacher Sharmila Desai helped this writer to reclaim her yoga practice by reminding her of the impermanent nature of reality.
Vipassanā is an exacting form of meditation that transports the mind profoundly towards silence. I attended my first course in 2019, and the quietude of that experience still reverberates in my mind. I had been practising Ashtanga Yoga for a little over three years, and before that, I practised Iyengar Yoga for almost 15. The benefits of an asana practice became evident when I attended Vipassanā — it allowed me to sit still with a straight spine for several hours of silent meditation.
I left the Vipassanā course feeling the happiest I’ve been in a very long time, and when I combined that practice with Ashtanga, it gave me the discipline to expand my learning. Living in Mysore, I got to meet and learn from some of the most respected teachers in the community, and I felt fulfilled — 2019 was one of the most balanced years of my practice. A year before I attended Vipassanā, I had applied to Ashtanga Yoga Morjim to study with Certified Ashtanga Teacher Sharmila Desai. I was accepted to study at her shala, but a month before my practice was scheduled to begin, I had to cancel my trip to Goa as I had a family commitment that needed my time and attention.
I reached out to Sharmila again in January 2020 for an interview with SanātanaYoga, a digital magazine on yoga that I co-founded and edited. There is a wealth of undiscovered yoga talent in India, and the vision for SanātanaYoga was to create a platform for students and teachers to share authentic yoga teachings and experiences with a focus on India. I wrote to Sharmila asking for an interview, and she asked me to get in touch after a year as she was busy with the Morjim shala and cultivating the garden around it. The magazine launched, it was accepted with love, and I was at the peak of my yoga practice, my career as a journalist, and I reveled in the deep satisfaction of being able to write about what I love. Writing and yoga are close to my heart, and the magazine gave me a chance to nurture both. SanātanaYoga became my sādhanā.
This was also the year of Covid. India’s first lockdown was announced within two months of the magazine’s launch. As a start-up, we had limited resources, and the lockdown forced me to write, edit, style and market the magazine. I was still working on my full-time job, too, and ended up working 15-16 hours a day every day. I loved it because I loved what I was doing. But, this is also when the imbalances in my practice began.
By October 2020, I knew SanātanaYoga wasn’t working. While the magazine gave me the blessed opportunity to meet brilliant yoga teachers across the world, and I’m proud to say that a majority of them are women, it also exposed me to the challenges of modern yoga. By December 2020, I was struggling to create content. Covid was getting worse and substantial money had been spent on the magazine with no source of revenue. Relationships suffered under strain from work, and my practice began to deteriorate. I needed to give more time to work, so I’d wake up at 4 am to practice, but I had so much work piled up that I started skipping practice to edit articles and plan shoot schedules at 4 am!
It had been almost a year since the magazine’s launch, and in December 2020, I was planning SanātanaYoga’s first-anniversary issue. That entire year, I was reminded of Sharmila every few months. Some of my friends study with her, and one of her students stayed at my home in Mysore — they shared the wonderful experiences they had at Ashtanga Yoga Morjim. The interview with Sharmila was important to me personally because I had waited for almost two years to connect with her, and it was important for the magazine because in the past five years, there’s been an increase in the number of Indian students practising Ashtanga. I felt it was important to feature authentic Indian Ashtanga teachers for those readers. By now, I knew the end of the magazine was inevitable, but I tried to save it one last time, hoping that if I published a few more issues and bought time, the Covid situation would change. I focused all my energy on the anniversary issue and wrote to Sharmila again.
She said she needed some more time as she was busy nurturing her farm on the shala grounds. I wrote back to her thanking her for the opportunity and said I looked forward to the interview, but in my heart, I didn’t believe I would hear from her again. A month later, SanātanaYoga stopped publishing content. This magazine was launched when I believed I was ready to share the learnings I received from my practice (not as a teacher but as a writer). I was in regular practise of Ashtanga and Vipassanā, and my mind was equanimous. I thought the magazine would be the magnum opus of my career, and it was, but it’s also one of my important failures. I made the fatal mistake of attaching the identity of the magazine to my yoga practice. I felt my practice was only as true as my work. When the magazine stopped, I stopped practising.
It was around mid-January this year. After 20 years of steady yoga practice, I no longer felt the inspiration or will to step on my mat. I was dealing with the consequences of a failed business, and those never end well. Work and yoga became so intertwined that every time I tried to practise, I associated it with everything that was happening to my career, and it became too painful to pursue. My source of solace became my source of misery.
I couldn’t write, either. I wrote professionally but creatively, I was numb. Nothing is more horrifying to a writer than a blank page and a missing imagination. I was in a state of anxiety, sadness, isolation, and Mysore went into a second lockdown that was far more severe than the first. I moved on professionally and managed to find work in the Indian yoga community, but something was broken. The love and laughter that I practised and wrote with went to a corner of my heart and died. I found myself telling friends I self-practice. I tried doing this, too, but it wasn’t regular (once a month, at most) and when I did, it was without meaning or awareness. This state of uncertainty and anxiety became a constant for eight months. This year has been one of the most challenging times for my spiritual development, asana practice and emotional well-being.
I started this article talking about Vipassanā because that practice brought me peace and equanimity. Understanding impermanence allows us to observe reality and understand life will play out the way it has to regardless of how we feel or think about it. I forgot this impermanence. That’s why I stopped practising — I believed I reached an end state that wasn’t what I wanted, and it took an instant for my mind to turn against me and convince me that 20 years of practice accounted for nothing. Self-doubt is crippling.
On 8th September, 2021, I received an email from Sharmila saying she had time for an interview. Reading her email, my heart sank. I had nowhere to publish it. I was confused but I felt a spark and an enthusiasm to create that I hadn’t felt in months. In the email, Sharmila shared a few details of what’s been happening at Ashtanga Yoga Morjim. It was a simple email talking about daily routines, but the nature of those routines caught my attention. Reading about how Sharmila is shaping and nurturing life at Ashtanga Yoga Morjim reminded me of the time I spent at an ashram on the banks of the Ganges, it reminded me of the Vipassanā centre that I love so dearly. These places also follow a simple daily routine, but these simple acts carry a deep meaning as they connect nature to the self and the self to all living things.
I found the courage to write back to Sharmila and tell her that the magazine wasn’t being published anymore. Before doing that, I researched independent publishing and found this online platform for independent writers. I explored Substack further and discovered a world of good writing and creative people. I wrote to Sharmila asking if she’d do the interview if I published it on Substack. She agreed. I didn’t know what I’d call my new project, what the voice and narrative would be, and I didn’t know how to write about yoga when I don’t practise it anymore. It didn’t matter. I sent her the questions.
I didn’t realise this immediately, of course, but in the process of waiting for Sharmila to send me the interview, I inadvertently started using my mind in positive, productive ways. I was thinking about designs, logos, colours, what to call my publication on Substack. Sharmila sent me the answers to the interview questions on 18th October, and on the morning of 19th October, I practised yoga.
The language of written words speaks to me more clearly and intimately than spoken words. The words Sharmila used in her answers were chosen carefully, mindfully and with intent. They were gentle words, poetic words, quiet words, words that calm and inspire. Words that came from a place of integrity and expressed in sentences that carry an effortless humility. Her insightful, meaningful observances have been arrived upon through experience and contemplation by a woman, a student, a teacher, a wife and a mother. I’ve never met or spoken to Sharmila, but I realise now that I didn’t need to meet her to learn what this teacher has to offer. Her lessons came to me in a medium that touches my heart more than any other form of communication — they came to me in writing.
Reading Sharmila’s interview, I found recurring themes of impermanence and perseverance despite impermanence. Her answers reiterated everything I felt and learned during Vipassanā. One of the questions I asked is, “Do you practice any art forms? If yes, what are they, and do you practice them as a form of spiritual sādhanā?” Her answer to this question reversed my lassitude. “On certain auspicious days in the year, the shala opens its doors before dawn for practitioners to sit amidst dias, alight with coconut oil and nestled amongst flowers gathered from our local market, placed in the form of an expansive mandala. As the sun rises, the petals are swept away and the floor mopped in preparation for the next day of classes, leaving no trace of the intricacy or labour put into its making. The exercise in creation and dissolution is healing and quite beyond description.”
These few sentences about the flower mandalas ignited my memory and brought awareness to the same impermanence I experienced during Vipassanā. All art is like this, as is yoga, as is life. I woke up the next morning and practised. It was a simple, ordinary act, and I practised with the innocence and freedom of a first-time practitioner. After practice, I sat down to write this article, and my healing began.
I no longer feel like 20 years of practice were a waste. I now draw on everything I learned during that time to inform my renewed yoga practice and teach myself. I have decided to self-practice and stick to it, this time, for real. I read the above words from Sharmila often. They remind me to trust that I can find the discipline and the will to take responsibility for my practice and to do it patiently, peacefully, quietly, repeatedly. I practise and write with an awareness that this is all impermanent, but that doesn’t mean I stop. In the same way that flowers turn into petals, then into mandalas, then dissolve into nothing and then the entire cycle repeats, so must my practice become a repetition that happens every day despite the impermanence of everything that’s attached to it. Sharmila said yoga takes time. It’s taken me half a lifetime just to start.
I now have faith that even if I lose my practice, it will find me. This time, it was through the teachings of Sharmila. Her guidance came to me at a time when I needed exactly this kind of guidance and inspiration. After 20 years of physical practice, I have learned all I can in an asana class and my learning has shifted to life experience and brief encounters that leave lasting, positive change, like the few email exchanges I shared with Sharmila and her answers to these questions:
Sophia: Your family was a part of India’s freedom movement, and your great grandmother and maternal grand aunt collaborated with great Indian artists like the polymath Rabindranath Tagore and the poet Sarojini Naidu. How did your family history shape your understanding of India and Indic culture?
Sharmila: My grandmother’s mother and aunt were contemporaries of Tagore and Naidu, so India’s independence movement was entrenched in the fibre of their upbringing and therefore permeated into ours. As a devotee of Sri Aurobindo, my maternal grandmother believed in an all-encompassing India, one in which our multifaceted traditions were a living part of present-day culture. She integrated Indian institutions into her way of life, such as only wearing homespun fabric, listening to live ragas at the National Centre of Performing Arts and always taking public transport. During our bus rides to schools where she taught dance and drama, I would hear stories from Shantiniketan1 about how artists, activists and intellectuals expressed their ideas on education, nature and self realisation.
While my grandmother was steeped in Indian wisdom, she pursued channels of art and prayer in the graceful pursuit of liberation without dogma. Every morning she would wake up at two or three, chant for an hour and then meditate until breakfast. The insight provided by her generation mapped the grit and aspiration involved in the quest for freedom on an individual and societal level. She and her foremothers exemplified that what we are seeking can be drawn from within oneself; one has to go within to merge without.
Sophia: The pandemic has inspired you to grow your own food, medicinal herbs and oil. Does growing your own food connect you with nature on a deeper level? What is your advice to people who want to adopt this self-sufficient way of life?
Sharmila: We leaned into our home vegetable garden as physical and emotional sustenance when our borders were shut during the first lockdown in India. The external constraints pressed us, novice gardeners, to focus on expanding our organic produce as a way to make up for the lack of availability of fresh food. It also was an opportunity for us to research and conserve plant varieties indigenous to our area that have been handed down through nature or tradition. The pause allowed us to create a cycle of sun drying our homegrown coconuts and cold pressing it into oil that supports our kitchen needs throughout the year. Our experience has been that the intelligence and heart of our native ecology helped us navigate some of the most difficult unknowns of this time. Krishnabhai garden, named after my paternal grandmother who avidly grew her own food on the same land, now homes a burgeoning diversity of vegetables, fruits, herbs, medicinal plants, edible and ornamental flowers on regenerated soil.
In our attempt to be self-sufficient, we have acquired valuable lessons, celebrating abundant harvests and simultaneously encountering seasons when entire plantings were wiped out by monsoon rains, strong winds or floods. No matter the outcome, one of the main reasons why I try, and continue to try, to grow food is the way in which time is consecrated along with the need to be continuously observant. Much like the practice of yoga, working with the earth reveals the importance of adjusting, or in some circumstances beginning again, in reverence to the omnipotence of nature’s elements.
Your start to gardening should be modest, in small steps. Begin by filling a reusable container with soil and put the seeds from a tomato you have eaten or a lettuce seed, which are typically robust, in it. If possible, enrich the soil with some compost and mulch (place dry leaves on top) to give it nutrition. Learn how to grow food in your balcony/under an overhang/near a window as a part of your daily routine. We used to take the unused wooden boxes in the children’s schoolyard to grow food for the local soup kitchen. It taught us that even though you might have to try a few times and the conditions may not be ideal, if care is brought to the method, it will likely sprout. Best is to start where you are and use what you have to embark on the journey.
Sophia: You encourage compassion towards animals. Can you please elaborate on that?
Sharmila: One comes to see the Self in all beings and all beings in the Self through the conduit of yoga. Respect for animals develops as a part of our sense of sympathy and kindheartedness towards all living beings. Being in Goa, where one is close to animals on land and in the ocean, illuminates the ways that we share this earth with them and that our collective well-being depends on reciprocation with, as well as conservation of, the natural world. Since human beings control most of the resources, we need to be at the forefront of solutions related to restoration and equity.
Our whole family shares a love for animals. We have opened our home to five cats, four dogs, two cows and two water buffalos, all rescues. We adopted the bovines in emergency situations when there was not enough space at the shelter and they were all babies separated from their mothers, either through illness or an accident. Our yoga shala has served as their home at night over the monsoons while we build a gaushala (cow sanctuary) for them. Our intent is for the gaushala to be a designated living space as well as a center for compassionate education where we can expand our current program for school children that explores our interdependence with plants and animals.
Sophia: Why did you start teaching yoga?
Sharmila: Yoga sādhanā brings home a breathing relationship with the inmost self and the world, an interconnectedness which has been a compass for me. Repetition, intrinsic to the form, harnessed a concentration — a dropping of the mind’s fluctuations and a bringing forth of a soft, single point from which to enter within. It offered an opportunity to observe with dispassion and clarity the present moment. Gradually, the practice of yoga built a foundation to meet the inner and outer challenges pervasive in life and is one that I continuously return to nourish.
My intention was never to become a teacher as such and I continue to see myself as a student first. The discipline was introduced through my mother and grandmother at a young age as a healing art and a vehicle to equanimity. The aim back then and continues to be — to study the form as a connection to the divine and to establish a cellular stillness. Only after many years of unbroken commitment, I was encouraged by my teachers and elders to impart what I had studied whilst continuing with learning. Although tentative at first, as the journey ahead seemed still so long, I eventually came to realize that I would eternally be a learner; the path of being and becoming would take much more time, perhaps even lifetimes, until it were possible to truly reside in an inner consciousness. Teaching happened little-by-little, step by step, mirroring the systemic method of Ashtanga yoga and creating the capacity to perceive the subtleties of energy as well as how a universal path can be individually applied. Sharing the form requires sensitivity, concentration and patience, so treading slowly has been essential.
Motherhood shaped the trajectory of my teaching to be nonlinear, especially since my husband had a regular work life at a children's publishing company and we made a decision together for one of us to be with the children. Often my choices have been centered around our family's schedule, seamless multitasking and placing aside certain short term goals to be available for the kids. While some may see this as unnecessary sacrifice or restrictive, it opened the doors to yoga as service as action through conservation work, literacy campaigns among vulnerable communities, and animal welfare efforts in our area, all of which we have participated in together. This approach has also meant that I had to move in and out of teaching privately to large groups of people and everything in between depending on the chapter we were in, whilst introducing yoga in community centers for youth, old churches that served local factory workers and domestic violence shelters for women. I understand better now that the disparate unconventional chapters I have undergone all contribute to the ethos created today on our land which includes the yogashala, gaushala and edible garden.
Sophia: What is your advice to young students who want to start teaching yoga or study yoga?
Sharmila: Immerse yourself in the form and let go of expectation or outcome. A lot of the beauty, mystery and freedom unfolds beyond our imagination if we delve deep while remaining willing to open up to the process. Searching within is a journey that requires latitude and happens outside the known constructs of time.
A regular practice provides the possibility to be unhurried and unforced in approach. It positions us to begin to understand the myriad aspects of who we are and ultimately have a direct experience of our essential oneness. Through dedication one develops the ability to turn their vision inward. There is no way to substitute the dedication or hasten its course. It is a day to day task over a long period, mundane and magical. So, devote yourself — years and lifetimes versus hours and days. The purpose of a contemplative practice is to open the inner book. Self knowledge emerges when we ask questions of ourselves and seek the answers within ourselves, shedding light on weaknesses as well as strengths to bring balance and exercise discernment. When we inquire how did we apply our studies in our daily life, we realize integration is both simple and difficult and that it takes a while.
I return repeatedly to my original intent in studying yoga, of opening to a higher spiritual consciousness, and try to remain undistracted within the purpose. Focusing on the work itself, from the dynamics of a self practice to the innumerable every day tasks of homesteading, provides the quietude for introspection as well as synthesis.
Sophia: Do you believe in God?
Sharmila: I believe in a Supreme Being, unnamed and beyond form, that pervades our reality. A divine principle — omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, and one that I am continuously and lovingly surrendering to.
Sophia: What are your favourite books on spirituality and yoga?
Sharmila: T.K.V. Desikachar - What are We Seeking?
Ravi Ravindra - Spiritual Roots of Yoga
Dr. Lata Satish - Counseling Principles & Practices for Yoga Therapists
Ajit Mookerjee - Yoga Art
Nanditha Krishna - Sacred Animals of India
Claude Alves - Organic Farming Sourcebook
Dr. Frederick Leboyer with Vanita Iyengar - Inner Beauty, Inner Light
The Mother - Health and Healing in Yoga
Sophia: Who are your spiritual inspirations in terms of teachers or masters that have inspired and informed your personal spiritual journey?
Sharmila: Both my grandmothers showed me through example that spiritual realization is not simply dwelling in a state of consciousness, it can be reflected in the way in which one leads their lives. My children give me the opportunity to do that, to bring spiritual practice to life in all moments. They unabashedly and affectionately show me a mirror where I can see the areas in which I need to work, keeping my feet firmly planted on the ground and cognizant that there is yet much to learn.
Sophia: Do you practice any art forms? If yes, what are they and do you practice them as a form of spiritual sādhanā?
Sharmila: On a few auspicious days in the year, the shala opens its doors before dawn for practitioners to sit amidst dias, alight with coconut oil and nestled amongst flowers gathered from our local market, placed in the form of an expansive mandala. As the sun rises, the petals are swept away and the floor mopped in preparation for the next day of classes, leaving no trace of the intricacy or labour put into its making. The exercise in creation and dissolution is healing and quite beyond description.
Sophia: How can we use yoga to create a better world (in terms of environment) for our children?
Sharmila: Yoga is a root step to create an understanding, kindling the will to preserve our environment as well as to tread lightly on the earth. It begins within the intimacy of working within oneself, transforming what we seek on a macro level inside of ourselves, at home and amidst our immediate surroundings. The experience of interconnectedness happens progressively within the sphere of reflection, instilling an inclination to protect the natural world.
Children learn from what we do. Somewhere within our own kids, I know our efforts in sustainability through tree planting, growing food, and opening our hearts to rescues in need sinks in. They also witness the sheer hard work, inner and outer, in following through with our ecological commitment, as well as the happiness that pours out of our engagement.
Sophia: How have your children and becoming a mother changed your spiritual practice? Is there a difference in your understanding of yoga before and after motherhood?
Sharmila: Absolutely. Having children brought to light the yoga of the Gita, to face life and to cast wider an awareness to the whole of existence. While a feeling of contentment stemmed from my formal practice, it was only when the basis of yoga became a part of daily life that transformation took shape.
Becoming a mother fostered an astuteness in observation, nourishing an appreciation of how thought, speech and action are interlinked. Energy is placed in bringing the broad philosophical strokes and love into the small moments shared together — meals, homework, laundry. As the children mature and develop their potential , I in turn grow and evolve alongside them in ways unforeseen. Being a conscious parent begins from knowing oneself, one’s svabhāva, and extends into a broadening of horizons as our children develop who they are. Our relationship is a vital part of my spiritual practice and understanding yoga as a living wisdom.
Photographs: Sharmila’s family archives, Briana Blasko, Hailey Wist, Justyna Jaworska, Karim Rojas, and Przemek Keppe.
Thank you for joining us, dear reader. I’m Sophia French, and this is The Yoga Life…
Inspiring and intimate writing and interview, glad to discover your world Sophia! Sharmila .. an inspiration..
She is just a wonderful human. Intelligent, kind and creative. Words cannot describe how much talented Sharmilaji is