I love taking a notebook to class now that my teacher gives us pointers on how to develop a home practice. It is interesting to build my own sequences, it keeps me more responsible and alert compared to following a prescribed one. We had covered standing poses, forward bends, using the wall as a prop and today’s topic was backbends. I like backbends as a category but they are limited at the moment. The back injury is still very much alive and I have to be careful. It shows up in Virbhadrasana 1 & 3 too and the pain is the best reminder to tuck that tailbone in.
One of the gifts yoga has given me is a certain fearlessness to try different asanas. At the same time, I have also learnt not to trouble an already troubled area. Today, I had the good fortune of having my teacher help me in Ustrasana. I could just let go and surrender to her legs as they pushed against my back. It was possible to get a sense of how far back I could arch without that sharp pain with the imprint of her leg. Very little. But the beauty of Iyengar yoga is how much of the action in asana is available even with limitations of the body.
While being helped by my teacher, I remembered Mahabali’s story. It felt like that, surrendering my body to her feet. I just read that story a couple of days back and that act of bhakti filled my heart to bursting and made my eyes tear up. It is strange, this emotional bubbling over. Most of the time, I live in my head.
In class today, I struggled with my ego before finally surrendering that part of myself, as is. It is something I have no control over, the desire to be ‘doing’ the invocation correctly, being the best student mindful of everything the teacher says. In my head, I know that the invocation is not done but felt, that there is no being better than anyone but this is the little ‘i’ at play. And it is painful, this divisiveness.
While chatting with my older daughter who is busy chasing her dreams, I shared my hopes, to be a student of Vedanta in the traditional way and Ayurveda besides continuing with yoga. My younger one piped up saying, so boring. The older one just nodded sagely although she couldn’t understand my desire to study without any exam! How do I explain this longing to study under someone who can initiate me into the mysteries of the ancient texts. I suppose I still have to be ready. In the meanwhile, I continue with what I can in the bustle of a householder’s station.
Perhaps it would be easier if the earlier gurukul system still existed. One guru under whom one could learn all the shastras.
My in-laws come from a pure Brahmin lineage and have been deeply steeped in tradition and religion. However, the years in the city chipped away at a lot of the old knowledge and slowly most of the practices stopped. It didn’t help that they didn’t know the reasons behind some of the rituals. Most of the wise old friends of the family passed away and with them a treasure trove of the experience of age.
As far as asana goes, there is guidance in class and through books. Japa sadhana is a whole new exercise. It is very much an inside job. I’ve persisted in an early morning repetition of the Gayatri mantra since it was the first one I ever learnt. Swami Chinmayananda talks about it at length in a couple of essays and one thing that struck was
‘Gayantam Trayaete Iti Gayatri’
Translated it means, That Mantra which protects him who chants it.
I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have it as my mantra.
Initially I was aghast at the velocity of my mind which refused to stay with the words of the mantra. Wrestling with it didn’t seem to work and for now I am just sitting down with 12 repetitions everyday. There are times when I think maybe it is not time yet. Perhaps I should just let it go but the stubborn runner inside says NO. So I sit and stay. There is not a single moment where I am present with the mantra.
Perhaps this frustration is also due to not seeing quick results. In asana, there is an immediacy to the effects. I forget the same principles of abhyasa and vairagyam work in all areas of my life. I only have the right to labour, not the fruits.
There is a continuous pattern of a phase of growing pains followed by a short ‘aha’ moment in all that I do. So this also will settle into a rhythm if it is meant to be. So far, the good thing has been sitting down everyday in the quiet hours of the morning and chanting, sometimes silently. A kind of setting the tone for the day.
While walking today, I saw one of the strays and mentally told him, “you and I are the same, barefoot”.
That momentary thought of oneness got me thinking about all creatures and their place in this amazing web of life.
Asanas are named after animals too.
It brought to mind part of an old song we learnt as children as well as a couplet from the Gita.
“All things bright and beautiful All creatures great and small All things things wise and wonderful The good Lord made them all”
‘Knowing that, you shall not, O Pandava, again get deluded like this; and by that, you shall see all beings in your Self, and also in Me.’ 4:35
A few more classes and I will complete a year of the beginner’s course at the Institute. The notices for admission renewal and new batch timings have been up since last week and I had earmarked a couple of beginner batches whose timings were suitable.
I hoped to get one intermediate class in addition to a beginners one but that would depend on what the teacher thought. We were allotted our classes today and my card read ‘Intermediate 1’. I told her I wanted 2 classes so would it be a beginner plus intermediate and she said “No, 2 intermediate 1 classes”.
For a moment I was stumped and then I did a mini whoop inside and the next or almost simultaneous thought was oh no, will I be able to cope?
The Intermediate class is for 90 minutes and if the classes I have seen are any indication, a lot of hard work. It’s exciting too and I find myself thinking that I should get more serious about practice during the summer break. I’ve been on a high all day and find myself daydreaming a bit. It’s an interesting thing with Iyengar teachers, they are a little detached when it comes to students and seem keen to dispense all they know to encourage students to cultivate a personal practice. We did a continuation of how to practise forward bends at home and it was interesting. I went further in my forward extensions than I have ever gone before and it was comfortable enough to get the classic clasp of the wrist. My spine felt as though it was parallel to the floor. A beautiful sensation, a first in the forward bends. Usually, it feels like hard work but today it flowed. It is a pattern I have noticed in asana. After repetition for a while, there is a breakthrough moment and then again a period of striving until there is another breakthrough. Most of the practice is just that, striving.
Today Sirsasana was a different story. I sweated buckets as we were in a long hold and I ended up with trembling in my legs. While in the pose, I remembered that I have the ability to endure far more than I think I do. It’s a valuable lesson I have learnt from running long distances. We have been asked to increase our time in the pose gradually to atleast 5 minutes.
Inversions have been a good part of my home practice lately and I can feel the difference. Geetaji mentions in the Preliminary course book that “these asanas help one to strengthen will power, improve memory, increase intellectual capacity and bring emotional stability, provided they are regularly practised. They help to build up character and improve behavioural patterns.”
I have been constantly surprised at how soon yoga asanas start to change things inside. Not just quick relief from pain, fatigue or restlessness but even at the level of thoughts and feelings.
For now, I’m just enjoying the happiness of being given 2 classes. It feels like a promotion from kindergarten to middle school. I hope I can be a worthy student.
I like to think of yamas and niyamas as vigilant doorkeepers to my sadhana. They are constantly one step ahead of where I am currently, gently prodding me to strive.
Earlier, I would feel a pang of regret that I did not latch on to yoga when I was first introduced to it. In retrospect, I needed 2 decades of learning yamas and niyamas slowly to be able to move to the third limb of yoga. Even now, it is a struggle when I see how much is required to be a worthy student.
Words are fascinating. Their sounds, a medium as well as an energy. It got me thinking that practising the yamas where my utterances are concerned is something I could explore. Increasingly, it is not what I verbalise but what I think and the underlying mental make up that need close examination. The questions can go on uncovering layers upon layers of my motives and hopefully bring about the change that is required.
Am I practising Ahimsa not just in non-violent speech but also in thought?
Am I practising Satya by not just blurting the truth but seeing if it is non-harming too?
Am I practising Asteya in speaking just my truth?
Am I practising Brahmacharya in knowing when to hold my tongue?
Am I practising Aparigraha in measuring my words?
Ultimately all of what I understand is not mine but belongs to the infinite knowledge of life. The wisdom of the ancient ones points the way for me to investigate and experience for myself. A personal understanding gets validated when something I read mirrors my interpretation. At times however, I also find myself wondering if all this is just in my imagination. Am I reading too much into the thoughts that cross my mind? But then how do I explain this sense of unclouded vision?
As a child, I would be lost in the images words brought to life. Painfully shy, books were my salvation. Much to my parents’ annoyance, I read everywhere, in the bathroom, under the bed covers with a torch, while eating and sometimes while walking as well. Finishing a good book was like having a small piece of myself dying.
As I grew older, the origin of words and the similarity in meanings of words in different languages added to the fascination. Literature was my subject of choice. Like most people in my country, I speak a few languages and there is usually a common root to frequently used words. More often than not, context provided the necessary introduction to a new word and the dictionary helped when the sounds did not elicit a probable meaning.
One of the earliest verses from the Bible that we memorised as children was, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John 1:1. This sounds like the praises to the pranava to me.
At my dad’s funeral, the reading was from 1st Corinthians Chapter 15 and at that time, I found my understanding of those verses was close to the Vedantic interpretation of life and death.
Increasingly, words, spoken and unspoken seem to be pointers. It all seems to come down to sound. Everything is the same on the outside. I have my family, work, social obligations but there is something more powerful at work in ways I do not understand. It’s a compulsion that drives me to open texts and they seem clear and loud. I do not question anymore but follow the call of words and it’s a rich world as I see with new eyes. There is so much available that I could spend a lifetime studying and yet not scratch the surface.
Sometimes it feels like I am living two parallel lives, one on the inside and another on the outside. I don’t feel a need to get away from my life but do look forward to completing my chores and work so that I can read in silence. Most mornings I wake up very early even without an alarm and it is a peaceful time to be quiet. Is this how it is for other people on a similar journey?
The first time I heard about working with my periods was when my earlier yoga teacher told us how to be mindful of the various phases of the cycle. While fairly regular and consistent with my cycles, I’ve experienced the ebb and flow of energy through the month. The physical discomforts of PMS are kept in check with a regular inversion practice and I find lightness with twists. The supine asanas calm me during my days and while I don’t find an expansive breath, it is a time when I am instinctively intuitive. Sometimes there is a sense of lightness at others a heaviness during those days and I see it as a play of the gunas, constantly changing.
I did not visit the temple last night for Maha Shivratri celebrations and did not use my japa mala. I was told that the rudraksha should not be worn or used during menstruation. As a product of ‘modern times’, I used to dismiss rituals and traditions saying that they had no place in today’s world. But as I grow older and search inside, I have had to change my ways in the face of my own experiences. There is so much out there that I do not know. Perhaps this ignorance is necessary to live without being overwhelmed. As and when the heart and mind are open and conditioned to receive new knowledge, there is a trickle of new information to process and make my own.
There is a lot I could talk about the physical aspects of menstruation. The greater draw however has been the variability of emotions and thoughts through the entire cycle. There was a brief period where I logged my miles, food and repetitive thoughts. At the end of a few months I could almost predict how each day of my cycle would make me feel physically and mentally. After reading a few of the posts from a couple of bloggers (links below), I plan to keep a note for a while with the cycles of the Moon and see what that throws up.
So far the only bit of literature I had access to was a lecture by Geetaji on how to practise through the month. I had not come across anything on the wider cultural and religious context of everything related to this uniquely feminine aspect of my existence. It fascinates me and I feel there is a powerful energy that is untapped and accessible only if I can live in sync. In all my frantic Google searching, I never came across anything that I considered relevant until now. And in the last 24 hours, I found enough to chew over for a while. While asanas were my introduction to Yog philosophy, the background was perhaps being created in all the years that passed by before the spark found me. This time around the entry into the texts of Yoga and Indian philosophy was easier and somehow more intimate. I don’t claim any deep scholarly understanding just an intuitive one, mostly that which I cannot really explain although I feel it at times as a physical sensation.
Being barefoot for almost the entire day over the last couple of weeks has seen a shift in asana practice. Better grip on the floor, better balance and a certain sinewy strength in my legs. Movements originate more from the proximal joints and there is more space through the legs. There is a slow but definite increase in padding on my soles although it is more visible on the right foot. My toes are better spread out and the soles are open. I feel my feet better and more fully when standing.
Somehow barefoot running doesn’t feel contradictory to an asana practice and the mental conflict about the same is absent. Perhaps it could be that I am just walking barefoot now and so the load is minimal. I guess even when I start to run, it would be very difficult to go against the body’s wisdom for too long. I was lucky to make that mistake early on.
Today’s class was very interesting as our teacher taught us how to begin a home practice. Last Wednesday she had asked us to get notebooks and most of us had our pens and books at the ready. We wrote in upavishta konasana, prasarita padottanasana and a few other asanas which was fun. She gave a few ideas on sequences to practise. As beginners, we just had to stick to the standing poses and practise sirsasana and Sarvangasana. If time was a constraint, we could reduce the variety of standing poses but do the inversions without fail. It’s a good way for me to practise when the weekly sequence seems overwhelming.
The two key takeouts from her suggestions were to – Find one mistake in each pose and correct that fault. – Try and increase the range of movement
Body fatigue is one thing which is unusual unless I am running a lot but it’s the mental rebelliousness and flightiness that I find hard to deal with. I missed a few days of asana practice by the book and it didn’t feel good. The few poses I did were not enriching as they were done as stretches. I did not chant the invocation and had no direction. It was more a fear that I did not want to miss doing something. It trickled into my everyday life and I found myself snappier and overwhelmed. The degree of unmanageability has lessened and perhaps it is not visible outside but I know it inside. Lesson learnt. Quality over quantity.
About a year back, I was chatting with my husband and mentioned that maybe over time my voice would improve if I continued practising. Recently, while reciting the invocation to Sage Patanjali, I could feel the change in my Omkara, a distinctive change in the quality of the syllable, more a steady vibration than the voice really. Perhaps it is the inversions, maybe it is the power of the Omkar, maybe it is grounding into the earth (a wild premise but I did notice it after the barefoot experiment, prithvi to akasha?), I do not know. My mind still wanders and I get caught up in the next line to recite and forget to be in the syllable being verbalised. Despite all my shortcomings, there is a different expanded sense of time during that brief chanting.
I’ve been contemplating a regular japa practise for sometime but haven’t been able to commit myself to it on an everyday basis. As of now, it is whenever I feel like it but that is not a practice and for change to take root, it needs the regularity of discipline. The Gayatri and Shiva mantras are familiar. There was a period in my life when I chanted the Mahamritunjaya mantra regularly. Some say it is a corollary to the Gayatri.
As a deity, Lord Shiva appeals to me with all his symbolism. Householder and ascetic. Terrible and Innocent. Supreme Yogi. Auspiciousness. Perhaps this Shivratri can be a day I commence my japa practice? It is an auspicious day for all spiritual sadhana and maybe just the little push to take that first step? If it be His will…