Novice Apprentice

I spend a fair bit of time at the institute in classes, the office and the library. I like the slow hum of sitting in the back office, sorting and arranging documents and images into their designated folders. It is a walk down the ages, not just of Iyengar yoga but also of the world at large. Guruji travelled widely and had a huge following from around the world. The institute would receive a lot of correspondence and some of them would include photographs and artwork of places and periods of a world that still lived largely via snail mail. These days, the communication is all instant- e-mail and texts. The accompaniments, if any, are digital and don’t have the same ability to invoke warmth like a photograph in your hands.

Besides those solitary hours, I also attend quite a few classes. Recently, after class, my teacher asked all the teachers and assistants to stay back. I guess I am an apprentice too. But, it brings on a big dose of impostor syndrome. After every class, I think about how much I don’t know. Actually, I don’t even know what I don’t know. Before classes, the small group of teachers and apprentices practise on each other and learn different supports and adjustments. And I realized that observing and actually doing are two widely different things as I adjusted people. It is such a huge responsibility to hold another body that I cannot afford to forget that. I understand my own body but different bodies and their pain is a constant reminder about how little we truly know of another.

While direction and principle of support and help are easy to understand, the actual execution of hands on adjustment is like learning asanas all over again. 🙂 I am reminded of Goldilocks’ porridge as my pressure is more or less or just enough. After the therapy class, I found myself thinking that maybe I wasn’t meant to be there. I don’t know if I have the chops for it. Intent is one but am I really capable? Perhaps, I’m better off with being in my comfort zone of solitary work. As I type, I also realize that I am a rookie and beginnings are like this. Shaky. I should simply stay with the not knowing until things begin to make themselves known.

Thoughts on Learning

Learning through the week is eclectic with classes ranging from beginners to advanced. Instructions as well as philosophy nuggets also stride this bridge and it is a bit unwieldy as I try to synthesize them. Each class opens the subject so differently! Until last year, it was easier to make sense of a week as there was usually the lens of the weekly format of asana categories. But, now I find it quite unruly for my untrained brain. Imagine a student attending the same subject as an undergrad, post grad or PhD candidate. It requires a shifting of gears as well as consolidation and a judicial application of what one has learned and assimilated. It is a wonderful opportunity though, to observe how the mind pivots to adapt.

Assisting in class has additionally changed how learning happens. There is more sharpness in executing instructions rather than simply doing what I know. It is quite different from being a student and yet one is very keenly a student too. While helping a few people in bolster Setuband Sarvangasana last evening, I was reminded of the same asana in my first year when someone adjusted me. There was an aha moment when the edge of the prop was in the right spot and changed the dynamic of the asana. I saw that same light in the eyes of those who got the right location. Lessons come back to us in different ways.

Learning yogasanas can be achieved in a studio/ class format or in the Guru-shishya Parampara, the latter is much rarer these days. I guess for that system to thrive, there is a level of surrender required of the students that most of us may not be able to muster. Back when it was the norm, the student lived with the teacher in the ashram as part of the household, involved in assisting with the chores and attending to study matters. There is a certain purification in that process, a shedding of layers that prevent receptivity. Guruji learned from Krishnamacharya in that fashion. I don’t know if the likes of me can cope with the rigour in that kind of learning.

Guru-Shishya Parampara has been a theme I’ve been ruminating over especially as one of the books I’m currently reading is based on a student’s rendering and reminiscing of his Guru’s teachings. (Aghora Trilogy). He talks about a teacher who didn’t hesitate to give his students a tough lesson. If one can step away from the viewing the relationship as one of power play, there is actually immense compassion, provided the Guru is authentic. Since a little before Guru Purnima and after, I’ve been thinking about the 24 gurus of Dattatreya and examining my own teachers and Gurus. All the teachers he talks about are part of nature’s expression and he is attentive to the lessons they can teach.

“… I have taken shelter of twenty-four gurus, who are the following: the earth, air, sky, water, fire, moon, sun, pigeon and python; the sea, moth, honeybee, elephant and honey thief; the deer, the fish, the dancing girl Pingala, the kurari bird and the child; the young girl, arrow maker, serpent, spider and wasp…”.  

If I had to think of a key learning from the week, it would be ‘desha‘ as explored through preparing the body for Pranayama. In the opening sutra of the 3rd pada, Patanjali says, “Desa Bandhah Cittasya Dharana” and later proceeds to lay out the different locations for samyama and their effects. At a yogasana level, how do we begin to start looking?

Dwi Hasta Bhujasana

Externally, my appearance is deceptive. It seems like everything is in working order and all is smooth. Reality is a different story. Old injuries and surgeries, structural imbalances and degenerative losses as a result of the natural progression of life mean that from ankles (shredded ligaments) to knees (grade 4 chondromalacia) to humerus surgery (thrice) to cervical spondylosis, there is little that has managed to escape the ravages of life. I’m not going to list age related fading but that too adds up. And yet, the miracle of an embodied existence is that healing occurs, changes happen, range, strength and energy are vitalized.

This morning, I decided to do a recorded lesson although I wasn’t sure how much I might be able to follow with a troubled knee. But, there are modifications and common sense is usually sufficient to know when to stop. It turned out to be a balancings class and I learned how to do Dwi Hasta Bhujasana. It was a first, attempting this asana and it was playful. Enter, fall, enter again, fall again until it happened and then happened repeatedly. Eventually, I could hold the pose for a few breaths. And it was a reminder of how basic asanas are so essential to easy, safe and effortless entry into challenging asanas. And somehow Chaturanga Dandasana also seems to have improved although moving into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana without dropping is still not possible.

As always, a new asana means spending time looking at pictures and reading the books. LOY has a different entry into the pose compared to how we entered it today. Many things have become refined since that seminal volume but the book is a wonderful reference. The images are great to see where to go, how to strike a pose. Asana names are fascinating for me and they make me stay with their sounds and feelings. They make me seek to understand what lies beyond the shape and structure, benefits etc. Indra is the deity said to be residing in the hands and I think perhaps, this is a way to explore by steeping into possibilities of the tattvas until they become apparent. Way back before I joined RIMYI, there was a teacher in the neighbourhood who had introduced some esoteric concepts in the classes I was attending. I was intrigued then but didn’t pursue it, somehow there was a sense of caution that these are strong energy practices that should not be attempted without guidance. But, now I find I want to understand and explore actively.

In all asanas, there is tadasana and savasana like Guruji would say. But, it is quite a journey from standing upright to surrendering to the earth.

Backbending in July

Recently, I remembered how, as a beginner, I wished that I could study with Prashantji someday and then it struck me that I was in his class now. And that sort of summarizes my RIMYI journey. Slow, meandering, unexpected but completely organic. The more I attend classes of varying levels, I see the incredible value of the foundational actions in asanas. Keeping at the basics has actually been a faster progression.

The last 2 weeks have been hectic with multiple overlapping deadlines but classes were a constant and they were instrumental in some breakthrough in personal practice. I injured the problem knee over the weekend and so couldn’t do many asanas in the classes. So a switch to the therapy sequence from a few years ago. But this time, I explored some of the kriyas Prashantji talks about and it was illuminating. There is such a marked difference in sensitivity and consequently, access. Like yesterday we were in some quiet Urdhva Dhanurasanas and then were asked to do the regular one without much attention and the violence to the nerves in the latter was so stark. It was like sensing in HD.

Yesterday, Urdhva Dhanurasana was also a learning period as the teachers and assistants worked on each other with hands-on adjusting. It was quite interesting to work with different kinds of bodies, see how the adjustments worked etc. In the bargain, I think I must have done 30 odd Urdhva Dhanurasanas but it was not tiring. I’ve not been practising it much lately and anticipated soreness today but there was minimal discomfort. I suppose there is more skill and less muscular effort in the execution of these poses now.

Speaking of backbends, Sunday’s class was a Chair Vipareeta Dandasana marathon with nearly 90 minutes of the asana, with breaks of course. But, that was again another first for me. Prashantji spoke about yoga as ‘happenings’ rather than ‘doings’ and happenings need ‘stayings’. And somehow that long hour and a half exploration of Vipareeta Dandasana provided the ‘staying’ necessary to move far beyond normal capacity with no distress.

Much of the teachings of yoga are esoteric, hidden in plain sight but the likes of me cannot decode it. It is an extremely slow revealing as one listens to teachers, listens to them carefully, repeatedly and slowly things become apparent, like clouds drifting apart to let the sun appear. At these junctures, there is usually a coming together of different influences speaking of the very same principles. Some of my reading and listening these past weeks have been a case in point.

Most days, I first lie on the Vipareeta Dandasana bridge before the beginning of class. It is the prop that held me through inexplicable heaviness of the heart but now it is a feeling of surrender that I experience. In some sense, it is a prayer, an entering into a sanctuary. The feel of the hard wood on my back and the release of the body as it yields to the support are always a quiet gathering. At day’s end, I’m simply glad for the opportunity to study in person with my teachers, feel the comfort of the call and response of the invocation and experience the gift of one man’s incredible sadhana.

Limbs and Diamonds

First week of every month is usually intense with standing asanas but this week has gotten off to a solid start. Class last evening, today morning and evening. My legs are toast. Bedtime is going to see a long Supta Virasana to meet tomorrow with fresh legs. The limbs are the first organs we work with and it seems apt to have them open every month. Of course the treatment varies through the year factoring the seasons, stage of academic session etc.

This morning was interesting as we spent a significant amount of time in Uthita Hasta Padasana and a few standing asanas before tying it all up in some lolasana, tolasana etc. Padmasana is still tough for me so some of the asanas are not completely available at the moment but it was cool to play with simply getting the palms to join in garba pindasana.

Later in the evening, the teacher referenced a beautiful sutra (3.47). Every time I hear that one, I am instantly reminded of some of the images of Guruji’s poses in his prime. There is such sharp clarity, like the vajra mentioned in the sutra.

Asanas are like sculptures in the sand. They are temporary and yet artists spend significant time and effort in creating their beautiful shapes, imbue it with a certain aesthetic or grace and the entire edifice has an integrity which holds it all together.

Yesterday’s class touched upon the noumenal. At the end of 24 hours and 3 different classes, it feels like a continuum rather than 3 separate sessions. Note to self from sutra 3.14 “‘Point Zero’ indicates the point of balance and harmony at which we can unlock and liberate the knotty confusion of matter and emotion. It also conveys the importance of finding the exact centre of the meeting points of vertical extension and horizontal expansion in body, breath & consciousness.

Unfolding

I was in Prashantji’s online class today and it was a revelation how he managed to make pawanamuktasana such a powerful asana. I don’t think I will ever see it simply as a release pose or a preparatory one for Supta Padangushtasana.

Post class as I sat to gather my thoughts and reflect on what he spoke about, I thought back about one of his earlier classes which revolved around saucha. Today, there was an exploration on satya as well as the prithvi tattva. His classes are an invitation to explore. They are not to be treated as an asana class in the traditional sense as he opens up multiple interlinked points through the 2 hours. And the thing is, each of them are worth an entire practice hour or two over a long period of time.

RIMYI has been a unfolding for me. Sometimes students argue about wanting to go to the ‘next’ level and I feel they miss the point completely. The more time one spends in those initial years, the more ease there is in the later ones. A certain ripening. I see how my body, mind and breath cooperate better now and often surprise me with an effortless entry into never before attempted poses. Today, I experienced a glimpse of what might have been referred to as breath condition, mind condition and body condition in rope sirsasana. It is a comfortable enough asana to be in as there is no physical effort required. And yet there are shifts in the mind and breath. The fluctuations or vrittis have a visceral expression.

Not really related but when he smiles, he reminds me of Geetaji.

“Learning deeply means learning slowly”

June is hurtling full speed. So many changes and turnings. Volunteering, hectic work schedules and everyday household chores have meant packed days. My teacher asked how I managed to do so much and my immediate reply was that I start fairly early in the day. But later as I thought about it, I realized that I pack in a fair bit simply because I only do things that I like, things that make me happy. Simple things that feed my heart and head, like yoga, walks, trees, pottering around in my little balcony garden, reading etc. While the trade off has been a more frugal living, I have had a largesse of contentment and energy.

Offline classes began last week and it has been both familiar and strange. Familiar because of the same teachers and space but strange with the reduced intake of students. There is a pivoting and finding balance in offline and hybrid modes. In some ways, adapting to the pandemic was easier than adapting to reverting to a pre Covid routine. In some way, the increased convenience of online has meant people choosing to stick to it exclusively as well. There is practical merit since one avoids traffic and parking woes, time taken for the commute etc. but I also see it as increasingly isolating. With the increasing dependence on technology and screens, our sensory experience of the world also gets reduced as the years pass. We’re creatures of nature, meant to fully inhabit our embodiment but that is fast fading. I wonder what we will evolve into. But, that lies in the realm of imaginings and I’ll let it be.

Classes have been good, practice is decent. My struggles with balancing and Sirsasana continue so have taken a different route with focus on Sarvangasana. And I’m reasonably happy with the progress. I’ve been playing around with Niralamba Sarvangasana from a stable shoulder stand. I thought my problem with those poses was more of the mind but actually they are to do with the existing conditions and old injuries of the neck, shoulder and arm besides extreme hyper extension of my joints. As a school child, my PT teacher would get exasperated when my arms would refuse to straighten while marching. There has been some reduction in the angle of hyperextension over the years thanks to asana adjustments.

Earlier today, I was observing the participants as I was watching the class and saw myself in many of them. The same difficulty in lifting the back and buttocks, thighs and knees in Halasana and it all makes so much sense now. The uncompromising attention to limbs and trunk. And once again I am struck by the systematic and logical structuring of asana actions for beginners. I love beginner classes. There is a certain vigour, freshness and energy to it which changes the alchemy of the body and mind. I love the other classes too as they get more subtle and work on the breath and mind but much of it is way above my paygrade. I’m happy to simply absorb by osmosis. I know it will make sense when there is readiness and ripeness. Till then, we tinker. Recently, I was rereading a book (Range By David Epstein) I quite enjoyed and was struck once again by a line in it, “Learning deeply means learning slowly.” Iyengar yoga is an invitation to learn deeply. Not just of asana, but of oneself.

A day of rest

A day of rest after 3 hectic weeks. Late nights, early mornings and very little sleep as I raced to meet some impossible deadlines along with institute work. Practice was a restorative sequence even as I listened to a class. Plenty of time in supine poses, some forward bends and savasana. While lying in supta baddakonasana, I watched the clouds in the sky. It was quite peaceful to lie there and simply allow the breath to settle into its rhythms. Quite like the waves, there is a series of movements until it becomes slow and almost nil.

view from where I lay

Coincidentally, Prashantji also referenced clouds later in the session in the context of the impact of aviation on clouds. Not quite what one expects to hear in an asana class but then his classes have their own language. It was in the context of the nature of science and ancient knowledge. The ‘why’ being the differentiator. It was a wonderful precept he unpacked through the 2 hour long class.

Body, breath and mind are the trifecta of a yoga practice and he points out how we are either body or mind centric, rarely are we breath centric. We use the breath for the body or mind, or the body for the mind or vice versa but how often do we use the body or mind for the breath? It changes the whole perspective of asana.

This week will bring another set of changes with a new routine that includes offline classes, some flurry around the kid and a new assignment. There used to be a time I would get overwhelmed by so much uncertainty but over the last 4 years, it has become a scenario that is comfortable. I am able to find my feet and sometimes dance to life’s music too. 🙂

Sequencing is an art

Practised to a sequence from one of the classes last year. At the time, the effort required overshadowed all the other tastes in the asana. It is only with the passing of time that we see progress. On an everyday basis, all I see is what I cannot do, not what comes easier. From this distance, I was simply struck by the creative genius of the sequence he employed that day. As a teacher, he has been more a devotee of the subject and his Guru. It comes through very clearly in his delivery. He knows LOY inside out and has a fantastic memory with respect to the photos in the hall.

While I know and appreciate the importance of sequencing, in my notes, the sequence would be secondary to the tidbits about Guruji or the Sutras or analogies or a focus action. The bodily effort is simply a way to prepare one to explore one’s own true self. But, today I was struck with the threading of a sequence as an art. The principles of sequencing are not complex, they are based in common sense and are not rigid. Often, one mistakes the list of asanas as a standard over the counter delivery for certain issues. Some things are established and we don’t mess around with it but else, there is a lot of freedom to experiment.

At my level, it is still body driven with rudimentary awareness of breath and mind. I observe but do not have the knowledge or maturity needed for experimenting with it. But, sometimes there is a brief experience of that cohesion, like in savasana today.

In RIMYI news, the institute gets more lively by the day with things getting ready for the fresh academic year. It is a different era now with both offline and online classes. As for me, I am simply happy to be back. It has been a constant through these last years even when it was shut. If I had to articulate what draws me there, I wouldn’t have one answer. RIMYI is many things. It is the generosity of a man who gave all of himself to the world, it is the devotion and dedication of the teachers who carry on his legacy, it is the space itself- a pulsating one that has remained a place of study, endeavour and transformation for so many. I could go on but it probably would not make much sense if one hasn’t experienced it for themselves. Sharing a few pictures here for you Suzy. The last image is of the space allocated for the book store and is adjacent to the new entrance.

Uthita Sthithi

Standing Asanas. Everytime, my mind takes off at rocket speed, I know I need standing poses. There is something about the firmness in the legs that anchors body and mind. I’ve been feeling flighty lately with extremely packed days. So, prescribed a week 1 kind of practice and threw in an abhyanga for good measure.

Practice took a beating this last week with 12-14 hour working days. All I could manage was some releases to ease creaky pains for a short bit early in the day. But today I was up super early and got a solid practice in. I’ll probably ache later in the evening or tomorrow but it will be a sweet reminder of the coursing energy that tells me I am alive. 

Last evening, while I was watching the Obi-Wan series, I thought about how our true selves are hidden from us. How little do we know of the vastness that lies below our waking selves. It is something the texts talk about but every once in a while, there is a sudden dawning, if only momentarily, of those truths. And then they sink under like a big, blue whale. 

I am reminded of how Jambavan needed to remind Hanuman that he was the son of the Wind and had great power within him. Hanuman is a wonderful symbol to explore the various concepts like Yukti, Shakti, Bhakti. They are a progression as well as a base. As a student, it shows as both a continuum and a blossoming. Cyclical. 

A good start to dive into another maddeningly busy day. 

Wall Adho Mukha Vrikashasana and half, Column Pincha Mayurasana and half, Uttanasana, Dandasana, Trikonasana, Parvakonasana, Ardha Chandrasana, Uttanasana, Upavishtakonasana, Supta Padangustasana 1 and 2, Prone Tadasana, Sirsasana, Ek pada Sirsasana, Halasana, Sarvangasana, Niralamba Sarvangasana, Savasana