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.

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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.

“Savasan today?”

“Savasan today?”, smiled my teacher as I rose from the pose and all I could say was “Thank you”.

It’s been about three weeks since I began a beginner’s class again and about three months since a savasana at the end of a session. A small transformation experience, shared between teacher and student.

Five years ago, I found my way yet again to a yoga class in my neighbourhood. That’s when my yoga journey really began. Subsequently, I became a student at RIMYI and progressed through the years until a couple of years back when I had to move to a medical class. And in the last three months, it was more of a therapy session for my heart and head as they struggled beneath the weight of the little self. All the asanas that were prescribed in those weeks worked on grinding through the little ego that suffered. That little ego lived in a never ending loop of memory. Guruji says it very simply and beautifully in Light on Life.

We are in our minds, in our memories, in our senses, in the future, eating so that we are in our stomachs, and thinking so that we are in our heads. We are always in one bit or another, but we never occupy all our inheritance. To experience the totality of being is to be in every room of the mansion at once with light streaming out of every window.

My mansion was a dark tunnel and there seemed no way out. All I knew is that if anything could help, it would be yoga. There was a faint sense of embarking on a painful journey but nothing would have prepared me for how difficult it is to confront oneself. Now that some time has elapsed, I can look back and see that in the larger scheme of existence, three months barely shows up, not even a blip. But, in the reference of human time as experienced by the body and mind, it seems unending. It’s been a short while since the shifting began and perhaps it is safe to say that the wheel is turning. There is a fledgling home practice, more reading and a little more light. Every time memory threatens, I remind myself – forward, not behind. Fear and grief belong to memory. Living demands presence in the present, like in asana. Attention to the here and now.

Standing poses today and it was a different experience to work within the limitations of a sensitive knee. Our reference was the pelvic girdle and it was easier to approach the standing poses from that point, kinder on the knee too. Earlier, I did not know where and when to stop. Now, I’m exploring how far to go and when to press pause. It calls for a revision of all asanic memory and finding their space within the context of a changed mind and body. At the end of class, there was fire ignited in the pelvic region, as though there was a revitalization.

Today’s savasana for me was an exploration of pushing beyond memory and allowing space for pause. A baby step in relearning savasana. Not an easy pose but one that I could stay until the end without being overwhelmed by the weight of dead memory. Every time, I shut my eyes in savasana, I would find myself in a mini panic mode and my eyes would fly open. It didn’t happen today.

Reminding myself again of what Guruji says,

A cleansed memory is one that does not contain undigested emotions from the unconscious but that deals with feelings in the present as they arise.

In gratitude

Beginning again

Beginner’s class is an evergreen class. We did a lot of parivritta and some parsva variations of standing poses and inversions. Some asanas with the bent legs is a challlenge for the knee but with a little adjustment or replacement, the class is manageable.

What is the inner shape of an asana? After class, the imprint of the asanas was felt as a receptacle shape in the lower abdominal region. A new experience of an old asana. I don’t know what to make of it so it’s just noted until further experience. Twists are tricky. Often I think I turn but the body hasn’t really moved all that much. An adjustment shows how much more space can be created. I find myself holding back and one of the assistants who helped me a lot in the therapy classes provided the necessary confidence to move further.

It feels like I am quenching thirst in these classes. Struggling with basic asanas, listening to the same instructions but in the context of a changed body and mind and watching other bodies is being a beginner in a much richer way. Years ago, I started my journey at RIMYI in this very class and it seems very fitting to recommence here.

The Art of Yoga

The empty hall is like a stage and the practitioners take their positions and props through that space to different rhythms. Yoga as an art is as evocative as classical Indian dance in its grace, poise and strength. It’s something I have come to appreciate as a practitioner and spectator, the art in this science. It reminds me of the a sentence in the foreword by Yehudi Menuhin, one of my favourite passages.

“Whoever has had the privilege of receiving Mr. Iyengar’s attention, or of witnessing the precision, refinement and beauty of his art, is introduced to that vision of perfection and innocence which is man as first created – unarmed, unashamed, son of God, lord of creation – in the Garden of Eden.”

I’ve spent the better part of two years looking at Light on Yoga images on the walls especially the contrast between the grainy black and white pictures and later coloured images. In his later years, Guruji looks still like undisturbed water as against the dynamism of his younger days. The other day, I was in the empty practice hall and thought of the one breath of life that connects all life, past, present and future. How many inhalations and exhalations had this space seen as they emerged and returned to source?

The space I gravitate towards remains the area near the trestle at the prop end, away from the hustle of a full hall. It’s quiet. There is comfort in the solid wood, cold floor and piles of props, all meant to serve bodies and minds that seek to learn, recover and heal. It’s a spartan space, as bare as it was when first constructed and part of the appeal lies in that asceticism. The window looks out to a large creeper that has wound itself around a tree trunk. Sometimes, when it rains, the sound of the water makes for a soothing backdrop. Life finds a way to adapt, survive and thrive.

One of my friends accuses me of being too square, a purist and I think, how can one not be when you see the richness and depth of an unadulterated pursuit? Every art demands obedience for a long, dedicated period before being ready to break rules, to create work which has enduring appeal. Yoga as practised by Guruji has that timeless quality and it continues in the living legacy of his students and their students.

Back to Basics

It’s been physically and mentally exhausting shuttling cities lately but I didn’t want to miss attending a regular class. Therapy class was about naked emotions and with no where to hide. Yesterday, I drove over 3 hours to make it to my first beginner’s class in nearly two years.

The drive was painful and full of unbidden memories, ghosts of past terrors and present wounds. Every time I felt a wave rising, I had to remind myself to let the body relax and have the wave wash over and exhaust itself. Sometimes, it meant releasing it in animal sounds of pain that reared up from deep inside.

I made it to the institute with about 40 minutes to spare so I sat and watched a class wind up. I also encountered yoga friends from the earlier classes and it was hard. During the last few months, I stayed away from familiar acquaintances as I didn’t want to talk about myself. And I found myself feeling the tightness again when they asked innocent questions after my health and home.

I didn’t trust myself to be ok in a regular class and the invocation time was one of angst. So I sat with my eyes open pushing back tears that threatened to flow. The class though was a beautiful reminder about the basics and I found myself reminded of “The body is the first prop.” After being heavily propped for the last couple of years, I was shaky in the independent poses. It’s ironic that the slightly more difficult asanas are easier now. On the way back from class, I could cry in the privacy of the car. Maybe I’m finally learning to feel and express sadness the way people normally do.

So much has shifted in the last year, right from my home to my inner world. It’s still in a flux but I feel lucky for the destruction of my life as I knew it. That allowed me to walk on a yoga road very different from what I had known till then. Less about books and philosophy and soaked in treating the kleshas.

Notes from about 3 years ago. Still as true.

I’m hesitant to acknowledge a home practice lest it go away. It is there in the way it feels like experiment and study, a little rusty like it felt five years ago. But, there.
I had a small aha moment today with my breath. I wanted to work with the dorsal region and so practised twists, sirsasana and variations, some backbends. Finally, in setuband sarvangasana and savasana, I felt the breath centered in cycles around my sternum in a controlled region. It was a different experience altogether, like pranayama. I remember how difficult pranayama classes would be, the breath just would not stay confined to where the teacher would tell us. Today, it happened.

Yoga journey could be compared to a gangly adolescent’s growth. It has spurts, uneven and disproportionate extensions and one fine day, you realize that the full adult size is reached. I suppose this is what it means to be a practitioner, forever an adolescent.

Teacher’s Day

In contemporary India, 5th September is marked as Teacher’s Day. A day when schools and colleges set aside regular work to acknowledge and appreciate those who mould minds and further a spirit of enquiry. It was instituted in 1962 on Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birthday. The man was the second president of a free India and a lifelong teacher whose life was grounded in the principles of Advaita Vedanta.

Traditionally, we have always had an auspicious day in honour of the guru, guru pournima, but that’s usually celebrated in the classical disciplines of art, yoga, ayurveda etc. The young people in schools and colleges know of this one better.

A guru is a good fortune that few are privileged to receive. Good and great teachers are thankfully more accessible to us. They are also a rare breed but thankfully at the institute, we have many gifted teachers who share of themselves generously. One thing they all have in common is the spirit of studentship and exploration, never a stasis of knowing it all. Another is the deep satisfaction when a student had that moment of understanding and each teacher has a unique way of expressing that joy. It is a deep personal connect that unites the teacher and taught in a moment of union.

Yesterday was an interesting class, mostly practice alone and it felt like a return to normalcy. That shift is real for this stage of my yoga journey. I feel it in the way breath spreads in my upper torso, like rain. It spreads far more wider and every part feels watered. I look at Guruji’s pictures from the different locations I occupy in the large hall at RIMYI and see how his chest appears in all the photographs. Fearless. Stable. Unshakeable. And I am happy to be in the presence of his living legacy that extends beyond his physical life. One breath that unites across time and space.

The large hall at RIMYI which has been a sanctuary

Perhaps there is progress. My teacher has said we could try a beginner’s class and a therapy one instead of the multiple therapy ones. I don’t know how that will pan out but right now I am grateful for the possibility. It’s almost like I was in exile for two years from a regular class. The last three months felt incredibly long and gut wrenching in the amount of emotional and mental debris it threw up. Is it all out? Hard to say but there is acceptance to stay with it and experience despite the resistance. It’s hard to convey the breakthrough but I’m sure yoga has given this to many before me and will continue to bless more people after me too. It was possible because of my teachers and their teachers in an unbroken line of experential wisdom. The mark of their beauty is their abhyasa and vairagyam. I suspect they’d be uncomfortable with the gratitude but grateful I am, deeply. This is but a small tribute to their generosity and compassion.

My pranams from the heart.