Pranamami Patanjalim

25 years ago, I heard the invocation to Sage Patanjali for the very first time. It took quite a few sessions before I could recite it along with the others. This was long before access to the internet and we had to wait for class for a repetition. Fast forward to today and I chanted the invocation aloud after a long time.

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There are a few beautiful idols of SagePatanjali in the institute and the artist’s rendition of the form is beautiful. It conveys great potential and stillness at the same time. I’ve mused about it earlier too.

A few months ago, the invocation would make me all teary eyed and so I was told to stop chanting it. Instead, I stayed in Vipareeta Dandasana on the bench and leaked or heaved grief. Over the last few weeks, I’ve silently mouthed the words or whispered it, not trusting myself to remain still. Baby steps.

Invocation is a common feature in traditional studies and all the texts begin with one. It sets the tone for teaching and learning where one leaves all other roles and enters into a time and space of NOW or the ‘atha‘ that the first sutra mentions. As much as there is responsibility on the teacher to impart teaching, there is also an equal effort expected of the student to learn.

The invocation to Patanjali is a standard across Iyengar classes, sometimes accompanied by the Guru Brahma mantra. Often, the teachers draw attention to some part of the body and later that turns out to be the focal point of study through the sequence. A few years ago, it would be a kind of mental game to guess what might be the asanas for the class. Interestingly, class today was almost the same as my home practice yesterday. One of the differences was that I overdid in class while yesterday’s home practice was pushing just beyond the limitations of comfort and fear of injury.
One was an external, display kind of approach while the other was an internal exploration approach.

Around the time, the downward spiral started, I realized that I needed to let myself go completely to come back. It was contrary to a rigid self belief that come what may, I had to continue in a regimented fashion but the body and mind were unwilling and unyielding. I had to learn to receive help and start from the beginning. Funnily, the good habits from then came back naturally once the mind started to empty itself of leftover emotional debris.

In a strange way, the universe binds us all more closely than we realize. After class, I thought of writing about my experience with the invocation and my dear faraway friend’s post about it was just the little nudge I needed to share my thoughts.

A continuum of service

Every Friday that I enter the hall, I wonder whether I have any business being there. I sit at the back not knowing what I should do when my name gets called. The next thing I know it is time to pack up. If the 100 odd minutes would fly earlier when I was at the receiving end of yoga therapy, now they are over in a blink.

It’s a different experience to help people with props, I’ve always been a recipient of that help and don’t know if I should do anything lest I do harm. But my teacher asks me to hold or pull or push and I do so a little self consciously. The actions though are those I have watched countless times just that seeing and doing are two different things.

The knee group needed assistance with rods and belts which that was both familiar and strange. My hands know with the shape of my knees and fixing the props for other knees allowed me an opportunity to get a sense of different textures of skin and structure. It’s almost as if skin reflects emotions.

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I worked with a few different people and the overwhelming sense I got was of emptiness. Most people, including myself, don’t inhabit their bodies. There is silence, a thick dark silence. By the end of a session or practice, there is a feeling of presence, as though one has been bathed in energy and the lights have been turned on. That’s a feeling I’ve experienced and I saw that in the face and bodies of others while being next to them. Therapy is more than just adjusting the body, it requires empathy and humour which the teachers bring.

At the end of that class, some of the people I helped came up to me and thanked me. While I was a little embarrassed, it was also a familiar emotion. I would feel the same way about those who helped me. We are a continuum in service.

Latitudes of the body

Earlier this week, my teacher gave a striking analogy for the movement of the spine in twisting poses. She said turn the latitudes of the body and that cue was a brilliant aid to move the trunk through it’s latitudinal plane. The phrase has stayed in my mind and notebook since then, often popping up to remind me to dig deeper into the same action in other poses.

Latitudes are imaginary lines, decreasing in size from the equator to the pole. Wide circular lines that shrink until the top of the earth. It retains its baseline regardless of the tilt of the earth as it wanders around the sun. Overlaying this imagery over twisting asanas makes for an interesting experience of inhabiting the movement into and out of the pose. Needless to say, the next day, I found new areas of my body groaning into awakening.

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Guruji in paripurna matsyendrasana. It’s an extremely uplifting image for me as I see the juxtaposition of his gaze and his body.

I’ve had different mental reactions to twists but the majority has been a certain sharpness of reflexes, clarity of thought and a lightness of body. It’s almost as though the squeeze expels all that is extraneous, leaving space for fresh thought and action. Many years ago, when clothes were still washed by hand, one would wring a piece of clothing to squeeze out all the excess water. It was a sort of twist and squeeze before release, leaving the garment ready to be left to dry in the light of the sun and gentle breeze. It used opposing forces to achieve the result, much like the parivritta action.

Most of the time, one looks at the effort in the pose, perfection in the pose, technique and technicalities but really, it is about the effect of the pose on one’s heart and mind long after the asana has been exited.

 

Yoga Help(er)

It’s been a couple of Fridays now that I am not a student at the medical/therapy class but I am still present. ‘Change of roles today?‘, ‘You used to be a student, so nice to see you as a helper‘ and a host of other encouraging remarks and smiles make me feel shy. I’m not quite willing to accept that I may be a ‘helper’, it seems unreal. So much so that I didn’t want to post it here but it is also a part of my journey. When my teacher suggested that I come to help, I was just grateful to be able to keep coming to the big hall. I would have been content just to pass props or tidy up and just watch but I also get to be there for someone.

Today, I was with one student. Mostly, just observing and assisting as instructed. We spent some time together and in close proximity, I realized we both were the same, riddled with fear. Her fears were predominantly about falling and hurting herself all over again. (She was wheelchair bound a few years ago.) Mine were about facing myself. Listening to her talk, I could see how fear leaks into our perceptions about ourselves and what we can or cannot do. At the start of the session, her body was in a lopsided way and by the end of the class, there was a symmetry and calmness in her face. She had done what she thought she couldn’t. I would feel that way after class but could never see it for myself until I saw it in her.

The only way out for me was to trust my teachers when I didn’t have faith in anything. Their belief was enough. When I think back about it now, there was some incredible amount of surrender that was at work for yoga to work its magic. For almost a year before I worked up the courage to speak to my teacher, I was in a slump. There wasn’t enough yoga balance to see me through one of the most difficult years of my life. Despite knowing what I needed, I couldn’t do anything to get myself out of deep despair. I needed to ask for help and then be willing to receive it. It is an incredible privilege to have the option to do so.

These days, I’m happy. Not relatively happy. Just happy. Every day comes without the weight of yesterday or tomorrow. Much of my life is uncertain and I have no firm ground under my feet but there is faith. In yoga. The same yoga that allowed me to rebuild again and teach that no matter what, one can always start again. It feels good to be able to practice regularly like I used to. And as always, surprising to see how much is remembered by the body and heart.

I find it a little easier to trust myself and allow others in. The other day after class, there were so many hellos and how are yous that it felt like, maybe I am with my people.

 

 

 

 

The dance of life

A couple of years ago, if someone had to ask me to choose between being steeped in yoga and my normal life, I wouldn’t be able to choose the former. Yet, it was always a dream to fulfill once my responsibilities were over.

And then the last year unraveled in ways I hadn’t imagined. Life threw quite a few curveballs in quick succession and forced a complete destruction of all that I held normal. Every single thing. All the yoga classes over the last few months worked with erasing the vestiges of that limited self, forcing me to confront myself. It’s amazing how much we build around the idea of who we are instead of who we actually are. Deeply flawed and potentially divine.

Destruction happens. It’s always happening in nature when leaves turn yellow and fall, creatures die, lava incinerates and tsunamis wash away many lives. Yet, nature creates, not recreates. Even humans. We say rebuild but it’s actually creating from scratch because the old does not exist any longer. That is consumed by time. The Natraj statue in the library was a beautiful representation of that thought.

The angst has passed, some anxiety remains and I find saying No helps, deciding one way or the other helps. Unless I close the door and walk out into the sunshine, I will never be in the light. It is not the way of the world, to drop back and trust that the ground will receive you. But, it is the way of the sutras, of continuous, dedicated abhyasa and vairagyam.

It reminds me of something I learned early – be careful what you wish for, it just may come true. It certainly appears to be the case now and I’m humbled, grateful and a bit unbelieving of my good fortune to study yoga. Sometimes great things are born of terrible pain.

No human is limited

Watching Kipchoge breeze over the finish line was a moment of goosebumps. I watched the videos many times and was thrilled each time. What struck me most was his simple, powerful belief of limitlessness and the keen awareness of his tremendous sadhana. Running is very humbling, like asana. Most of the work is just practice, usually not good enough but then some days there is flight. Like in yoga.

I miss running, the sweat against cool mornings and the regular spade work to chip away at time or distance. It’s nearing 3 years since I had to give it up and sometimes I fantasize about running again. I still remember the touch of the road on my bare feet and the sense of clarity in the zone. Kipchoge says we’re limitless so maybe…

Anyways, maybe it was all the excitement about running that made me wear my marathon tee to practice. I rarely put it on now that I don’t run but Kipchoge reminded me that limitless is possible and asana is that. It was a conversation starter and as I spoke, I realized that that was also me, a hardworking runner who had it in her to train consistently.

I’ve felt ignorant as far as asanas go and thought that practising in the hall might be a bit impostor like for my stage. It’s an irrational thought but one that prevented me from doing many things as part of a group. I ran alone, I practised alone, I studied alone. There’s a saying in the running world, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I didn’t seek speed as much as I sought distance yet I went alone. It’s the same with yoga. I seek depth more than breadth so maybe it is time to be a participant too?

I’ve started to go to the institute for practice on the recommendation of my teacher and it’s a big deal for me. The first couple of times, I ended up practising for an hour before hurrying away. Yesterday, I was present for over an hour and a half, repeating what I had done the previous day. And just like that, practice in a hall full of people felt normal. It reminded me of my early days in the medical class when I did my own routine except that this session is silent save for the sound of props as and when used. At the end of it, I was soaked in sweat and content with the effort. Beginner’s toil.

Friday was twists and I decided to repeat the same in practice. Standing twists tend to irritate my knee a bit but keeping the leg a little bent prevents it from hyper extending. The seated twists are ok with elevation and shorter holds.

It’s always challenging, this class of asanas with their assymetry. The twist happens but the symmetry and length don’t come easy. How does one maintain space and stability of an undisturbed centre even when wringing it? I suppose it must be like the eye of the storm. Twisting poses have enticing benefits of losing inches but that doesn’t interest me as much as the effects on the mind.

As a day, Saturday was an eye opener. I spent time with a health worker in one of the slums and realized what a huge world of difference exists between my world and theirs. I found myself hoping that they too could find the blessings of yoga to cope with their difficult lives. There is much good work happening with primary health care but to make limitless happen, the shifts required are of the heart and mind. Perhaps one day we can see yoga as a way of life right from childhood.

Bending over backwards

Medical class is for 105 minutes. Yesterday, I was in intense backbends for over an hour, amply assisted by teachers. I sweated buckets and tired but the teachers didn’t let up and we had a few laughs about the attention I was getting. Many vipareeta dandasana variations, urdhva dhanurasana, chakra bandasana, setubandhasana etc. and many repeats until I could barely walk.

But, the beauty is the recovery, a swinging sirsasana on the ropes. It was happy. Except for a fleeting thought about fast flowing tears and terrible fear in the same asana a couple of months ago, there was nothing but the air against my face and a sense of joy.

Often, I get asked what my ailment is. I wouldn’t know what to say but now I feel, my ailment is avidya. Ignorance, the foremost of the kleshas, containing the remaining four. So, I go and do what my teacher says even if I wonder how in the world I am going to bend over backwards like in the pictures I am shown. It simply looks impossible. But, I trust her, implicitly and go wherever she sends me. Perhaps, this is also about learning to trust myself again.

I came back home and have been mildly obsessed to find out all about viapreeta dandasana. There is much available about the pose, its execution, its benefits and contraindications. I seek something else but it is hidden from me. Perhaps, someone reading this can share? Yesterday, I came across the words Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram in another context and feel it is a clue to what I seek. Translated, it means truth, auspiciousness and beauty – all of which exists in the backbends.

If I have to explore a little about the three, Satyam would be the inescapable confrontation with one’s own self, black, white and grey. Shivam might be the potential for self- realization and Sundaram would be joy, all of which happen in backbends. That class of asanas has been about moving to the light, walking through darkness and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It has been walking through the gutters of my mind and finally getting out. I am reminded of The Shawshank Redemption where Tim Robbins walks a similar journey.

Am I free? I don’t know. Chances are I will fail again and hopefully rise again. All I do know is that, yoga has the tools and it is possible to endure.

P.S. I seek to learn and would be grateful for ay experiences that you may share.