Sitting down

Lately, I have been exploring the seated asanas, particularly dandasana, upavishtakonasana and baddakonasana. The legs seem to have a mind of their own and are reluctant to go where I want them to. Stubborn and dull. So, I patiently stay until their resistance wears away and they become amenable to settling down. It is a different way of practising compared to the earlier exerted way of pushing to move. Most of the time, I need to push to learn the correct movements and alignment for better endurance. However, these slower explorations are no less intense.

These poses are helping to ease my knees and get a little freedom from tight runner groins. The standing asanas also seem to have benefited from the seated ones. Today, I got out for a run after a long time and noticed better knee alignment while in motion. There was symmetry and barely any sensation of overuse of one leg. 

Last week of the month classes are a prep to pranayama and it is usually difficult for me to get my mind to slow down. But yesterday’s class was a different experience. It was so silent inside, quietness so quiet that it felt as though my breath had stopped! I still don’t think I am ready to try it on my own yet. A good asana practice itself is not possible everyday!

Japa sadhana is troublesome as my mind wanders and I want to quit. But I sit and complete it even as I see my powerlessness over the thoughts that rise. Somedays, it is easier to observe and gather attention but most days it is like watching a child run riot and being helpless to do anything. Frustrating. But, eventually the child tires and has to settle down. Perhaps the mind will also tire itself out and be still. 

I question myself about my reasons to sit down and all I can come up with is to become a capable sadhaka. A fit instrument. The earlier days were fresh and it seemed light and as though I was on track. Now it is a hard and barren landscape, a struggle to keep going. It’s been just a paltry few months but my mind wants instant gratification. Come to think of it, this tendency defeats the very purpose of the whole exercise. One good thing is that I have sustained a daily practice despite the resistance. Perhaps if I do it often enough, it will become refined by itself.

Sometimes it seems like there is a constant endeavour and dissatisfaction but I have never been as content and at ease in my life. Often, it feels like a dream, a rich private world that draws me and the one outside where I still have to play my roles.

Hari Om

Notes and rivers

As I walk out the Institute, I am loathe to get back into the hustle of the day immediately. Sometimes, work is pressing and I have to look at my phone as soon as I am out. At others, I let it stay silent in my bag until I get to my car. Then, I just sit in there for 10 minutes or so and make notes. Usually, it is the sequence as I can remember it and what I consider as key points. In my understanding, it may be an action or location that is examined in different asanas, something about Guruji as remembered by the teacher or a tidbit on the philosophy. The sequence is important but perhaps not that essential as I am beginning to find out. 

It may be a good idea to ditch the notes for a while. Just feel and experience rather than think too much about whatever I learn. Trust in the process and the subject. Forget if I forget, relearn if I need to. The very thought of letting go of this note taking is scary. How will I remember? My memory could fail me. But isn’t this a hoarding? As I type, my mind negotiates with itself, “ok, don’t bother with the sequence but maybe some of the important points?” 

How can a river flow if it holds on to every little thing along its way? Can I flow like that?

Straight from the Heart

Two trips to the Institute yesterday. One for class, one for the Guru Pournima celebrations. Back bends and prostrations. Both filled my heart. 

The program began with the traditional invocation to Sage Patanjali and the Guru Brahma chant. It was followed by a beautiful dramatization of a series of conversations between 2 practitioners. Abhijata and Raya enacted the roles or rather spoke from the heart. The script was probably not necessary for them if their voices were anything to go by, almost as though everything they narrated, happened to them. Through their dialogue interspersed with some asana demonstration and video clippings, we were treated to some pearls of Guruji’s wisdom. Some things made me go “yes, I’ve felt that” and then I question if it is possible since I am so young in yoga. I too have felt the timelessness spoken about in paschimottanasana or janu sirsasana for the tiniest moments but then I am still very raw, so is it real? It doesn’t matter.

There was a quote by Guruji in the presentation that has stayed in my head since yesterday, “Does the flower fall from the tree of its own free will or does the tree abandon it?” 

Little K’s sketch on the program. I love the stick people doing asanas…

Geetaji released the latest Yoga Rahasya and spoke a few words at the end, reminding us all to preserve what Guruji has given us.

commemorating 50 years of Light on Yoga

The format of a dialogue between 2 practitioners was very interesting and got me thinking about my peers. Perhaps it would be nice to discuss the subject to find a different perspective. However, that is very limited since I wait for someone else to initiate a conversation. It’s nice when it happens but I’m equally content staying in silence. Perhaps, it is because I get my sense of community and fellowship through this blog. I receive encouragement and experience, unconditionally shared, that nudges me to explore in ways I don’t usually do. Online pilgrims on the same journey…

I wonder who did Guruji share with? Of course, millions of people through his books and teachings but that happened much later in his life. As a beginner, who did he share with? Today’s reading from Gaudapada’s Karika on the Mandukya Upanishad (commentary by Swami Chinmayananda) had a very beautiful line and I found my answer.

अस्पर्शयोगो वै नाम सर्वसत्त्वसुखो हितः।

अविवादो ऽ विरुद्वश्च देशितस्तं नमाम्यहम् ।।२।।

“I salute that yoga of detachment which is called asparsha, (lit. no touch, in other words, having no relationship with anything, at any time), which is taught through scriptures, which promotes the happiness of all, which is conducive to the well-being of all, which is beyond all disputes and which is at once free from strife and contradiction.”

The commentary by Swamiji states- In the case of Asparsha yoga, it being mainly the inward development of the individual, accomplished in the secret caves of the heart, it is never painful to others and it is ever good for the individual concerned.

The beauty of Guruji’s sadhana is the hope it gave and continues to give. Yoga as taught by him emphasised on correct alignment and is seen as rigid and harsh by some. But at the core of it is compassion. The language of the heart. 

Guruji was not a man, he was a phenomenon. Same with Swami Chinmayananda who made the great scriptures accessible to the modern day seeker.

Offering my humblest pranaams to Guruji and Swamiji who guide my path.

Hari Om

Musings on Yama

Recently, I had the opportunity to put together some slides on yamas. It set off multiple trains of thought.

Yama is the name of the Lord of Death and the Lord of Dharma. He is the Lord of the South, the direction Lord Siva faces as Dakshinamurthy. He is divine father to Yudhishthira who is known for his restraint. 

In all the above musings, there is an element of holding back. The common feature in all the yamas is restraint, not giving free rein to indulgence.

The yamas as espoused by Sage Patanjali in the Yog Sutras are five- ahimsa (non violence), satya (truth), asteya (non stealing), brahmacharya (continence) and aparigraha (non greed). The hatha yoga pradipika lists ten yamas- ahimsa (non violence), satya (truth), asteya (non stealing), brahmacharya (chastity), kshama (forgiveness), dhrthi (fortitude), daya (compassion), aarjava (sincerity), mitaahaara (measured diet) and shaucha (cleanliness). The ten commandments in the book of Exodus share the same sentiments. 

Perhaps it is no coincidence that restraint has strain within it. Holding back from giving into instant gratification requires a great deal of power. There is a common image of Lord Krishna holding the reins of the horses as Arjuna’s sarathy (charioteer) which is a beautiful depiction of the skill and poise of control. 

in perfect restraint

Yamas are not easy to practise in everyday life, primarily because they are in relation with others as well as oneself. Just when there is familiarity with one facet of it, lack of it in another aspect brings discomfort. It is a silent practice, continuously shifting paradigms.

Ahimsa translates as non violence which calls for a high degree of restraint and discernment. What constitutes ahimsa? Is it simply overwhelming love or love that cares enough to be tough? The body is an excellent playground to explore ahimsa. It is a fine balance between overdoing and pushing just beyond my comfort zone. 

Ashtanga yoga begins with yama, although in these times, it starts with asanas before one begins to consider what lies below the surface. Until asana started weaving its healing on me, I wasn’t capable of giving deep thought to what the principles really meant. Sure, I had good intentions and generally tried to keep up to them. Very often, I went to extremes and then was not able to sustain what I started. Too much strain, too much force, too much load. And I would slide back into a dejected giving up. I was going about it the wrong way, using violence, while being completely unaware about it. Avidya. 

Running long distances helped me to understand the value of slowly becoming capable to go the distance. A little everday added up to a lot one day. Most of the runs were abhyasa and then there would be an effortless one just like in asana. Strive a little often enough and experience a tiny glimpse of full silence. And the cycle continues.

Restraint happens effortlessly when I am ready. Things that don’t serve me fall off by themselves and lose their attraction. It happens. I don’t do anything but watch. The pull towards instant gratification lessens by bringing a tiny pause before reacting. And little by little, it begins to become longer and natural.

One of my favourite Sutras is 1:33 which talks about friendliness, compassion, happiness and indifference for living in harmony with others and oneself. Initially, it was the sound of the words as they rolled off my tongue that attracted me it. Later, the four attitudes made perfect sense to deal with others and myself. It is so simple. It is possible to gain freedom from repetitive thought patterns and behaviours. The yamas develop courage to face life on its own terms.The tadasana of everyday living.

Hari Om

What does the breath have to do with my knees?

Finally managed to switch the evening class with a morning one. Every new teacher brings a different experience to the 90 minutes. While the class is about asana, the experience is about being here, now. 

Sometimes I wonder what is it about asana that I like. I don’t have any goals of being able to do an independent handstand although it would be nice to do that. I don’t have any fitness or body building aspirations even though I run. Both asana and running make me feel alive. I suppose it is bringing balance and stillness to my body and mind that I seek. The irony is stillness comes through movement, is it the predominance of vata? Perhaps that is why tadasana is always fresh. It is a pose I find myself in everyday even if only for a brief while. I’m grateful for the limitations that push me to study and practise. If not for them, I may have been insufferable.

This class is conducted by an old timer and he is the only teacher who did not demonstrate any pose. Just short, crisp instructions that seemed to adjust our bodies by the power of their utterance. The first thing I noticed was his knees and the class revolved around knees. Earlier my problem child was the feet but they seem to have found a way to learn how to work. The knees give me trouble in some of the bent leg asanas and I have been asked to prop it. I don’t think it is something with the knees but it just shows up there. Surprisingly, in yesterday’s class, janu sirsasana was painfree without any support! The last two classes I didn’t want to come up from the pose. It just felt quiet and as though I could stay forever. Same with paschimottanasana

The class was peppered with hints about practice and the pen in my head scribbled furiously for sometime before I let go. Too many to remember and I can only hope they have been stored in some corner and will make themselves experential reality in time. It sounds a little fantastic but a thought that popped in during class was that the teacher seemed to be channeling Guruji. 

“Where does the inhalation end? Where does the exhalation end?” This prompt from the teacher in savasana is an interesting thought to ponder. Lately, I have taken to identifying the breath as soon as I wake up and at random times during the day. There is a sense of almost unbridled energy when the breath moves without obstruction through both the nostrils. Perhaps that is why it occurs for a short duration and at intervals. 

This whole thing with the breath is almost as though an internal radio is adjusting the frequency and I’m catching bits of a station alongwith static. I’m not tuning it neither am I shutting it down. Let’s see where it goes.

In my reading yesterday, there was a very interesting point made about the rarity of a true sadhaka. How many lifetimes before my sadhana can be undivided… Vedanta and yogasana dance together in my feeble attempts to be a good student. More often than not, a thought from the Upanishads finds reference in Guruji’s works. It just makes the idea clear in a practical way. There is much to read between the lines…

poster at the institute for guru pournima celebrations

Offering my sadhana, flawed though it be, at the feet of the guru.
Hari Om

Study and practice

Classes have been exhilarating this week with little, unexpected improvements in asana. I’ve always struggled with the balance poses and it was a surprise to be able to get into a steady veerbhadrasana 3 and uthita Padangushtasana. It happened while I was not looking and because of my teacher. I didn’t expect to even touch the pose when she first demonstrated it. How do I keep everything straight and hold the big toe? I’d be hopping on one foot! The systematic way of leading to the pose made it possible to reach the asana. But the real beauty lies in the integrity required to reach there. Something I learnt early on is to focus on how to work rather than aim to reach a pose. The asana happens by itself. One of the things I love about the system is the correlation between different families of asanas. Supta padangushtasana and veerbhadrasana 3 are twins! 

There is a renewed curiosity and playfulness about asana as I go about my chores. Sometimes there is a spontaneous veerbhadrasana 3 just to see if it still happens. And it does! Doing dishes is tadasana time for the legs while folding clothes is an easy time for virasana. I’m still reluctant to do baddakonasana or upavishtakonasana although I need that more. 

Today’s reading was just one line and its commentary from Gaudapāda’s Kārikā. 

आत्मसत्यानुबोधेन न सङ्कल्पयते यदा ।

अमनस्तां तदा याति ग्राह्याभावे तदग्रहम् ।।३२।।

When the mind does not bring forth any more of these imaginations because of the knowledge of Truth, which is Ātman (pure Consciousness), then it ceases to be mind and that (mind) becomes free from the idea if cognition for want of objects of cognition.

Swami Chinmayananda puts it very simply by telling it is sufficient for us to understand that the mind is nothing other than the ‘focal point’ of the five organs of knowledge. 

It echoed a recent question from prashnayantra for me. Thank you Michael for pointing out this fascinating resource. Although it is way beyond my current level of practice, I believe the questions will simmer somewhere in the background and prompt a deeper enquiry when I am ready. A seed sown that will sprout in the readiness of time. In the meanwhile, I endeavour with all my shortcomings and flaws to the best of my ability.

Hari Om

Sauca of a different kind

As children, we would be stripped down to our underclothes for a weekly oil massage every weekend. This would be followed by a thorough scrubbing down until we were squeaky clean. This elaborate weekly clean-up died a slow death as we kids grew up. By the time I was a pre-teen, oil was not cool.

A few years later, I was reintroduced to the indulgence of the enne snaana as part of the daily routine post childbirth. There is a word for this stage of new motherhood in Kannada, baananthi. I was lucky to have Amma who knew the old ways to ensure I got loving, indulgent care. Once the baby grew a little bigger, work and other things happened and that leisurely time was soon a faded memory.  It came back again for a short while with the birth of my second child but the pace of life had increased dramatically by then for an extended break.

In the last couple of years, I rediscovered the comfort of an oil massage. It is very calming especially when I get overwhelmed with juggling many things. ‘Enne snaana‘ literally translated means oil bath and refers to an oil massage followed by a hot bath. It can be a simple activity or a long drawn indulgent one. 

During my baananti days, it was almost a ritualistic process. There was an old massage lady (maalishwali) who came home everyday to give me an oil massage and bath. After a vigorous kneading with warm oil, she would give me a bath with hot (almost scalding) water and a paste of chickpea flour and turmeric. This would be followed by standing over a smoking basket to heal the wounds of childbirth. The basket was used to cover a mix of sambrani (a resin) and ajwain (carom seeds) that would be sprinkled over burning coal embers. The smoke had medicinal value and left a lingering fragrance. She would then bind my belly with an old sari. My new baby girl got a similar treatment after which I would nurse her and we both would fall off to sleep. The room would be mildly warm and it felt like being enveloped in a cocoon. As I type, I can remember the smells and sensations of that time. It was like being in a temple, sacred. 

These days, the old routine has been pared down to a self massage and hot bath, usually, on days when I have class. Besides preparing the mind to be in student mode, it helps ease some of the stiffness of body. It makes my body more supple and makes my asanas better. A byproduct of this habit is nourished and healthy skin that smiles with the pampering. 

It reconnects me to my body and creates a sense of reverence for this embodiment. How can I not care for the garden I have been given after spending time tending to it? 

As the Bible says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…” The same thought is mirrored in Guruji’s oft repeated body as a temple reference. All roads lead to yog.

Hari Om

A barefoot runner’s yoga 

I was chatting with a fellow practitioner yesterday who wanted to write an Iyengar yoga sequence for runners. In the course of our conversation, he asked about my running. I told him that I had gone completely barefoot and the inevitable ‘why’ popped up. So I said the first thing that came to mind, ‘stronger feet, better asana’.

Ever since I started running barefoot, my standing poses have more grounding and my feet feel healthier. Better arch support, more open soles and greater foot flexibility, etc. I did go through my share of overdoing before finding my feet though😊. 

An old friend who happens to be a long distance runner sent me a book on barefoot running and I used the principles in it to develop a plan to transition slowly and steadily. I guess it has been successful because even a gap of a few days doesn’t impact the feet or ankles. I haven’t really studied the science behind it and have let my feet be my teacher. It has been a very subjective experience of listening and adapting to the body. 

Sometimes I run loops on a ground as that offers a varied surface; it has mud, stones and bugs besides debris. Running there is an exercise in intense awareness and movement while making my feet ready for any and all kinds of surfaces. Each step is new and fresh despite having run there many times. My senses are sharper and I actually see the ants being industrious as I run. The tiny glass shards and bottle caps are like beacons to stay alert if I want to keep my feet intact for another run.

On one of my runs, an elderly gentleman came upto me and said that he appreciated my running barefoot and warned me about the glass. He then asked me why barefoot and proceeded to answer the question himself. In his answers, I found mine. Mostly, I just reply because it feels good and never go beyond that. That wise man said it is taking energy from Mother earth and releasing all your negative energy into the ground. It must make you emotionally more stable and mentally strong. I nodded yes to all of them. It got me thinking a little and one of the reasons I run barefoot is joy. Feeling the ground so directly, so intimately is very rejuvenating and charges me up.

In a perfect world, I would probably go barefoot everywhere but it would be inconsiderate to step into someone’s home or a class with dirty feet. Although, what others consider dirt is actually probably cleaner than what we accumulate in all our hygiene fetish. I used to be obsessive about clean feet and wore slippers at home my entire life. Little did I realise how much I had disconnected myself from myself. Perhaps that is why tadasana is so dear to my heart. As a popular line goes, root to rise. It is really ascending to the fullest potential in oneself.

Running barefoot has taught me many things, a greater respect for all beings, great and small. It teaches me that equanimity is possible in life situations. Everytime I explore a new terrain or route, I am vulnerable and exposed. It is a delicate dance of faith, awareness and humility to be present. Regardless of the chatter in my mind, I take one step and then another and let the rhythm of the feet find the rhythm of my breath. Sort of like being on my mat and discovering something different with every practice. Both the disciplines have fed each other and continue to do so. They both require a dedicated and balanced approach and reveal their secrets slowly as I become ready to receive. One of my dilemmas was ‘running or yoga’ but with barefoot running, I have found a happy balance, atleast for now. 

Today’s class was brilliant. We had a different teacher, a petite soft spoken lady who actually made me experience savasana in trikonasana, eternity in a moment. That is probably an entire post in itself.

Hari Om