As of now

It’s been a little over seven years since a tiny spark was lit in a neighbourhood yoga class. The trajectory of my journey within the confines of a 2 X 6 mat since then has been both wide and deep and yet peripheral. Like many others, I came to yoga because of physical pain and discovered how it could be relieved and then stuck around as I gained energy and health. There was a rapid ramping up as I shot through a year of beginners classes to intermediate ones. Running fed my yoga and vice versa. I was still a runner first.

Then came injury and a long period of passive practice, quietly allowing the body to heal even as the mind and heart were crumbling. It led to a complete surrender to my teachers who generously knit me back with incredible compassion. That was the springboard into re-entering a world of independent asanas and slowly finding myself where I am. This is a space of patience, compassion and joy. Ordinary living but singularly extraordinary when considered in the light of my previous experiences. I never thought it would change me this fundamentally.

And now again there is another turn in the wheel as I learn to navigate using asana and pranayama as a means to enquire, to explore and accommodate the vagaries of bodily changes due to degeneration. Unlike the sense of loss I felt when running became unavailable, there is firm faith in yoga as a practice.

I spend a little time at the library as I sort through old files and papers. In the course of that exercise, I stumble upon writings by and about Guruji, Geetaji and Prashantji. I look at photographs and notes from decades ago and marvel at the incredible genius of one simple man who became a light for so many millions around the world. I look at pictures from LOY and compare them with his later images and see how much his already beautiful poses from that seminal work changed in the intervening years. That teaches me to keep flowing, keep learning.

And yet, I’m a little fatigued by the online format at times and also realize that I’ve come to depend too much on the luxury of props. So this month’s effort is to revert to the ‘first prop’, my own body. Last week, I met some old faces while clearing up stuff and it felt really good to see them in the flesh and blood as opposed to little thumbnails on my screen. There was a lot of catching up and it was good to exchange notes on challenges in practice. As I listened to the old-timers speak, I realized they all struggled with their own physical and mental challenges. As a student, I only saw their proficiency in asanas.

I reflect and write about yoga almost everyday and yet there is a reluctance to share it. Maybe it is a natural change where there is more of a need to stay with reflections rather than simply put them out as and when they occur.

Somewhere along the line, the asanas started to look better but I see them as a continuum. Every time I am in class, I am a beginner again. I struggle, lose balance and see the disparities. During demo, I feel responsible to stay and hold a good pose. The experience of demonstrating is very different from practice or being a student. It is more performative. So, I exert will and stay.

Standing poses are largely stable while forward extensions have improved. Twists have always been easy but now they are softer. Inversions have seen a setback as the neck and eye have been acting up while balancings are a continuing challenge. Backward extensions are a moving average. I’ve not really felt the need to document the newer actions as the body’s intelligence has learned to make more efficient notes.

Through the more refined actions we learn, I see how they would apply in therapy. More a matter of principles rather than a prescriptive sequencing. The key is in listening, in looking without fear, without judgement. And remembering the first of the yamas, ahimsa. First, do no harm. Chronic pain can be frustrating and I’ve seen how there can be violence in thought towards that hurting part. And yet what is most needed is what is most often ignored. Non-violence, allowing the shot nerves to come to rest. Taking the time to allow necessary nutrients of the body, heart and spirit to be replenished.

I look at the teachers and see how their teaching has been different as their life stages change. Right from someone in their 30s all the way to a 70+ years old teacher, the zeal remains although the expression of yoga in their lives is different. It reinforces my belief and faith that regardless of my physical condition, the practice of yoga will always be available as long as I seek it. The form may differ, it may not be so much about chasing advanced actions in asanas as it is about doing what is available, fully and wholly. Living with purpose.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of yoga literature thanks to the library stint, a couple of chance buys, a few books I received as well as the ones I already had with me. As always, it is fresh every single time.

The Joy of Practice

Months with 5 weeks have an extra serving of inversions and this evening’s class was an Adho Mukha Vrikshasana spread! There are many videos and instructions on handstands available online but the solidity of a live session is something else. As I kept doing multiple attempts, it felt like I was back in the big hall. At the end of class, my clothes were drenched and my heart was joyful. My teacher corrected quite a few mistakes and now I have some areas to work with. She has seen me from my very first year and being in her gaze makes a big difference. It is satisfying to push through habits/ conditionings.

Adho Mukha Vrikshasana is a good mirror to see oneself. While there is the physicality of the pose, what is also inherent is one’s approach to the asana. As I reflect on my journey into the pose, I see how my fears came from different areas. There was the knee, the arms, wrists etc. which needed time to be able to come this far. Jumpings were not possible with a bad knee but they are a part of my practice now. I’m able to do them without pain and there is confidence in landing. My arms are skinny and every time I stood on my hands, I would imagine them breaking like dry twigs. That visual image is no longer there. The arms still look like sticks 🙂 but I’m stronger. 

An older picture but this is still where I am, using a passageway to get into the pose.

It is not quite about the pose but the journey towards it that is fascinating for me. It is all the little bits and pieces of experience that one gathers along the way that shape the arrival at one’s destination. Like the LEGO blocks my younger one would play with. Make, break, remake, reimagine, make. This year, I’ve gone into poses I’ve never attempted before with ease simply because of a stubbornness in honing the actions in basic asanas. But sometimes, classes like this are a joy. The sheer exuberance of sweat and effort and will. Sweat cleanses in more ways than one. Effort keeps one grounded in one’s chosen field of study. It strips one of everything but the bare essentials. It shows up one’s own capacities and limitations, allows for respecting and challenging them respectively. But the tempering of discrimination is the key. And will is the backbone.

Life has a good rhythm with yoga being the fulcrum of my days. When I look back at my journey with RIMYI right from the first year of being an eager beaver to feeling out of my depth in intermediate classes to medical sessions for nearly two years followed by the most painful and transformational 3 months, I see a meandering road. Those days were followed by helping around in medical classes and getting back to regular beginner and intermediate classes before a pandemic struck. The online format last year allowed multiple classes and I also began learning pranayama. This academic year, there have been 2 additional sessions as a demonstrator which feels a little more intense than the others since I feel conscious of having to stay steady in the pose. I hope to continue with this sense of stability and contentment. Sthira Sukham Asanam is not only on the mat.

Beginning Again

This academic year, I opted to do only the intermediate classes thinking that perhaps I ought to get out of the familiar comfort of attending a beginner’s class as well. But, I found myself in one again, quite unexpectedly. This time as a demonstrator. It was a trip down nostalgia lane as I listened to all the questions at the end of the session. I remembered my eagerness and the questions I had but never dared voice. The students in these classes are brave, asking the very same things I was too shy to ask. I smile inside thinking about the thirst to know and the need to know if my asanas were the way they were meant to be. I wanted validation then, I wanted to be the best student in the hall. Looking back, there is a fondness for that enthusiastic student quite like how I feel about my children when they were younger.  

The intermediate classes have been cranked up a bit unlike last year when the online medium was still new and there was hope of it being a temporary arrangement for a year or so but this time around, online classes have become more established. I wonder if this mode of instruction will continue once things stabilize and it is possible to have classes in person. It is hard to think of Iyengar yoga and not feel its nature of touch, hard wooden props in the big hall, the buzz of conversation etc. Earlier in the day, I found myself thinking of how rich my time in the therapy classes was. I thought I was observing, what was happening was really an absorption more than just noticing. I remembered two cases in particular and it prodded some additional reading.

While making notes today, it was interesting to think about the Kurmasana that was covered last evening, quite by chance. It was an option among other asanas that we could do. I think part of the reason for choosing it was Speedy. Speedy is a rescued turtle who has been with a friend and is currently with me. It is lovely to see him enjoy basking in the sun, he looks quite sphinx like with his pose. At such times, his reptilian stance reminds me of Bhujangasana. And at others, he can withdraw so completely inwards that there is nothing but a shell visible. While Speedy is a little unusual (he moves incredibly fast for a turtle), he has the capacity like others of his species to remain without agitation. Animals teach us much, little wonder that they figure in the names of so many asanas. Garudasana, Salabhasana,  Adho Mukha Svanasana, Bakasana, etc.

So much is packed in a name.

Looking back

Six years ago, when I started this blog, it was simply with the purpose of documenting a beginner’s experience of Iyengar yoga. Six years hence, looking back, I see that it is more a navigation through the lens of yoga viewed through multiple perspectives of time and space. It hasn’t been about asana techniques or benefits but more an exploration of the different pathways that appear at different points in time.

It has been a while since I posted here. In the last three months, I spent a fair bit of time on the road before settling into the lockdown necessitated by a devastating second wave of the pandemic. This time around, the losses were closer home with friends, extended family and acquaintances falling ill and, in some cases, passing away. Besides the tumult outside, there were matters closer home that needed attention. Through all this, there remained a steadiness of mind and heart, with the ability to stay with uncomfortable emotions. Time on the mat and classes have been a constant through these last few months.

The 2019 calendar still hangs in my room and the thought of the month is something that still continues to percolate through my days. The month’s image is Guruji in setuband sarvangasana and the thought is ‘Yoga is harmony’. How can we experience harmony when there is so much suffering in the world outside? In the context of a pandemic, how do we live in harmony with a virus? Where can one find harmony in a situation of attacks and counter attacks? How can we remain in harmony when confronted with the devastation wreaked by forces of nature?

And yet, when I slip into the woods or step on my mat, there exists nothing but harmony. I watch the change of seasons, the rise and fall of new growth, the damage wreaked by storms, the weight of dead and decaying matter and there is balance. On the mat too there is the harmony of learning and unlearning, ability and inability, laziness and endeavour, resistance and acceptance. I find myself experiencing a beginner’s floundering once again as I wait for the actions and experiences that the teachers want us to experience. It comes in flashes just like the early days of asana. With time, some classes remind me of earlier classes and something from the early years makes sense. I recognize ease in ‘striking the pose’ as Prashantji says. There is a seamless coming together of different parts of the body to assume the asana, stay in it and dissolve it at its end.

At day’s end, it does feel like there has been harmony. The various elements of living both within and without have found their space without striking any incongruence. Prashantji’s classes this month have been way above my current ability. His use of language is quirky and can seem excessive at times but the more time I spend with his words, it seems like he is opening different doors to the same view. The pace is really rapid in terms of the subtleties he explains and I simply surrender to not knowing. It will come eventually when the body, mind and breath are ‘cultured’ enough. That word has stayed with me since the morning’s reading from his book, Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali. Asanas are for spiritual culturing. What does it mean to be cultured? That is definitely subject matter for long exploration.

Time and Time again

I decided to do the 18th week sequence from the Preliminary course book but come Virabhadrasana 3, a challenging pose for me, I paused. I looked up Light on Yoga, Yoga – A gem for Women and then a video on youtube and saw one of Kofi Busia teaching the pose. I didn’t take the same action since I saw that my problem child lay much more closer to the ground. I needed more of a lift especially in the left foot so rolled a belt and put it under the arch. Such a shift in stability. My knee got sorted, the snappy straightening of the leg didn’t happen and there was much more firmness in the leg not just while entering the pose but also exiting it. Usually, my ankles are dancing. An aha moment and one I tried in Trikonasana and Prasarita Padottanasana. The sequence went to toss as I explored the arches. It was a sharp zooming in and working piece meal. Post the session, I can still feel that steadiness. Skill versus power as Kofi Busia mentioned.

Feet First

And then I thought about how it always comes back to the feet, the foundation of our bipedal existence. In Virabhadrasana 3, the mind is already far ahead in the future, thinking about balancing. It’s a good pose to study Atha Yoganusasanam, which was my morning reading and reflection. It’s such a beautiful way to begin an exposition. An invitation to discard the baggage of the past and the uncertainty of the future to simply act in the present. In this moment, I have free will and agency. I can choose which way to move, I can choose to change a set pattern, I can choose to break free or I can choose to continue in established behaviours.

The beauty of ‘atha’ lies in its ever freshness. It is forever eternal because it only exists now. A couple of days ago, I was listening to a podcast on homeostasis. It is a condition where the body is maintained at a certain optimum condition internally. It is not a static state but an ever dynamic one, adjusting constantly for changing environments, external and internal. The various systems of the body kick in to function as an integrated whole and each and every cell is involved. Asanas are also like that, dynamic in their stillness. For an apparently quiet sirsasana, there are many cogs in the wheel working to maintain that steady stillness. Someone like Guruji had extreme consciousness of each and every cell of his body.

Beyond the microcosm of the human embodiment, the universe too remains in the constant flux of the gunas. The penultimate sutra states “As the mutations of the gunas cease to function, time, the uninterrupted movement of moments, stops. This deconstruction of the flow of time is comprehensible only at this final stage of emancipation.” Time has been a theme running through this year. Between time on the mat and time in the woods, there was a recalibrating that happened rather organically. A minute became just a minute, an hour just an hour and the ability to be in the present increased while the feeling of being overwhelmed with tasks disappeared. I suppose part of it also had to do with getting off the internet as a source of news, entertainment and distraction. In a very unrefined, gross sort of a way, this change in how I used technology allowed a peek into the possibility of finding time’s true measure. The last couple of months without digital noise has made it possible to listen without distractions.

In the woods, I look at the trees and see how they grow ever so slowly, no rush whatsoever and there is no hankering after becoming. It’s simply a being in that time. Some years the flowering and fruiting is not as much, some years it is profuse. There is disease, decay and death but no sense of finiteness in the forest. All that dies simply becomes part of the forest and takes a different form, it releases the pressure of having to achieve something. I’ve been experiencing something like that. I still work, I still have to meet deadlines and have chores etc but they’ve all settled into an easy pace. Surprisingly, I find that I pack far more into my day, have better outcomes and yet feel like I have a lot of leisure time. And all this with good humour and a smile. I’ve also probably retreated further more into myself but it doesn’t feel closed in rather as though I am standing in an open field of light.

Coming back to practice today, the attention to the arches were a going back to basics. I still attend beginners classes and intend to do so until I am kicked out of it. I find that stepping back a few paces and working on those initial adjustments with some time under my belt gives me a better understanding. I work just as hard in those sessions as I do in the Intermediate ones. Yesterday’s classes were standing back arches and we prepped with some seated ones. The same preparatory poses had made me feel acidic a few months ago but this time, nothing. And I could trace the change back to simply learning to quieten the abdominal region. And that was learned while sitting straight but with a soft belly for invocation. Softness. Our brains, hearts are soft and yet they power our entire existence. Without them we wouldn’t exist regardless of the firm bones and muscles. Off the mat too, it is the same. Skill more than brute strength. Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam

The last week was intense. In addition to the regular classes, I also made it to the 2020 Yoganusanam classes held by the Belur trust. This is the first time for me and I was reminded of the very first time I watched as an observer 5 years ago. Geetaji’s commanding voice, the 1000 odd people rising into the poses as one and the entire stadium held in an unbroken stream of concentration. Back then, I was interested in the sequences, technicalities of the asanas but it’s changed in terms of focus now. I listen to glean clues about how Guruji and Geetaji might have practiced, how their lives on and off the mat had the same dynamism and stillness. Ultimately asanas are also a prop.

Covid-19 changed many things and in the context of yoga, made the practice of asanas a very indrawn one even while learning online. No doubt, it’s been a more physical practice but the fruits have been in intellectual clarity, mental steadiness and emotional stability. This year has probably seen me on the mat almost daily compared to the previous years and it has borne fruit to the extent of my efforts, perhaps a little more than that. At year’s end, I find that the reflections on the thought for the month helped me learn to bring my attention to a single idea and allow that to be the substratum of my daily living to the best of my awareness and ability.

The next year, I’d like to stay with just one thought, ‘Guruji’. Actually, it is already active. My year started with his birth anniversary. Perhaps, simply keeping that one thought in mind, I may be able to let a flavour of his sadhana percolate into my life as a student of yoga.

Yoga is Action

Think action and the twin attitudes of Abhyasa and Vairagyam flow together. And that is the art of living as a science, philosophy and art.

If I were writing in sutras, I’d simply leave it at this.

Hitting the right note

One of the things I love about this system of yogasanas is the use of analogies. They are liberally borrowed from music, nature, modern gadgets, food etc. Most of the similes do the job of conveying actions perfectly making instructions of ‘move this part or that’ almost unnecessary. Having the imagery of a raptor spreading its wings does more for a vimanasana than any instruction does in understanding the elegance in the extension and expansion of the pose.

The third pada talks about the siddhis, two of which are garima and laghima. Asanas are a place to experience that power as well, a teaser in a manner of speaking. For instance, how the action of the shoulder blades can create density and stability of the legs or how extension of the upper hand gives lightness in Trikonasana. A few days ago I read a biography of Ustad Vilayat Khan and also watched a documentary on Coltrane. Both maestros whose music had similar siddhi like powers – the lightest touch to the deepest somberness. As musicians, they spent their lives in tune with their instruments so much so that they sang through them. They didn’t need an external tuning equipment, that’s how much they were one with it. Their mastery transported not just them but all those who listened to their music.

This week has been a parivritta trikonasana concert and it was exhilarating. It is usually a pose where my weak knee gets annoyed but this exploration was one of length and breadth, free breath and effortless twisting. And it led to a stable and sustained parsva sirsasana. I was reminded of some impossible turning from last year and heard an echo of my teacher’s voice saying ‘make the back finer‘. I do miss the touch of adjustments that give a sharp push ahead but this learning is one where the earnings are from within the body’s deep intelligence. I find that I don’t want to ask questions or search for their answers elsewhere but within the boundaries of my skin. And staying with not knowing has allowed the body’s voice to be heard.

The single minded dedication of many hours , everyday for years may not be possible for the likes of us but even within the limited constraints of time available, it is evident how a little work over a long time develops refinement. The initial years are simply a lot of sweat and frustration like learning to write as a child in between lines but eventually, it becomes easier. I often find myself wandering between the quiet forests of yoga and writing, not quite sure which one is my home. The latter has been a longstanding sadhana since childhood but completely unguided. It has been an absorbed practice through reading and reflection, letting the words write themselves with my hands as the instrument. The words only flow through me, they come from elsewhere. Yoga though has been a systematic unfolding of a science, an art and a philosophy through the legacy of a giant, beautifully transmitted by his students. I find that both feed each other with the greater gain being one received from yoga. It enriches itself as well as the practice of words. Prose, pose and repose.

Savasana reflection post class

Savasana was a longish stay today and after an almost leisurely class, the stay in it felt like I did not exist, save for a section of the torso that had the movement of breath. I did not have a sense of the rest of my body, it was like there was nothing there, no limbs. Soon after, my teacher parts class with “Go beyond the structure of savasana” and that explained my experience.

I see another transitioning, from ebullience in backbending to dynamic stillness in it. The immediate image that comes to mind is one of Guruji in an urdhva dhanurasana against the platform. Eventually, I suppose it would become even quieter where one might be able to go beyond the structure of the asana.

Notes from practice, classes etc are pointless against the actual experiencing. The last 2 or 3 months, I’ve stayed away from making notes and instead let the body make its own.

Yoga is the art of living

The thought for October reads, Yoga is the art of living. As I mentioned in the last post, the more I stay with these monthly contemplations, it becomes increasingly evident how difficult the simple statements are. As the month commenced, it also struck me how thoughtfully the thoughts were arranged in a progression through the months. Before I looked at next month’s thought, I was musing over how the art of living is one of integration which is nothing but karma yoga. And as Krishna says, action without the expectations of its fruits, abhyasa and vairagya are the twin heartbeats of a seeker. I took the calendar down and listed down all the statements and I see how their sequencing is a bit like sequencing in asanas and the teaching of the same.

December   2018 – Yoga is being eternally contemporary

January 2019 – Yoga is awareness

February 2019 – Yoga is purity

March 2019 – Yoga is sensitivity

April 2019 – Yoga is equanimity

May 2019 – Yoga is harmony

June 2019 – Yoga is deconditioning

July 2019 – Yoga is experiencing innocence

August 2019 – Yoga is compassion

September 2019 – Yoga is integration

October 2019 – Yoga is the art of living

November 2019 – Yoga is action

December 2019 – Yoga is to surrender

Yoga as the art of living is really an invitation to be alive. It us an invitation to fully inhabit our embodiment. In the foreword to Light on Yoga, Menuhin talks about it being each and every time a living act. That little opening is a favourite and one I’ve read so many times that it comes unbidden. What does it mean to live? What does it mean to live as a human being? I suppose these are questions that are continuously answered every single moment as we range the spectrum of tendencies from divine to demonic. At day’s end, when I reflect on the activities, actions, words and thoughts, I often notice how things could be handled better. Increasingly, I also notice how I’ve learned to respond differently although it is easy to slip into the unthinking comfort of habit.

The last couple of practice sessions were frustrating and I realized that I had crept towards outcome and not effort. It’s also a gentle reminder that a post 40 body is different. As a woman, there are the monthly ebbs and flows of menstruation along with the ageing that begins to accelerate. Add existing injury or degeneration and the mix is one that needs a balanced handling. Not too little, not too much but always pushing the edge of possibility. I suppose when I think about the art of living, it is really the art of effortless effort, prayatna shaithilyatha. One of my teachers used a lovely analogy in Uttanasana. He asked us to imagine Thakur (from Sholay) doing the pose. (Thakur doesn’t have hands) Often, we tug and pull to reach the chin to the shin but the elegance of the body dropping in surrender to the ground is a beauty to watch as well as experience. There is no attachment, simply a surrender. As I type, I again see how the thoughts of the months have been so beautifully linked like a sutra.

Integration to the art of living to action to surrender.

“Yoga is compassion”

August’s thought was one that I was conscious about every single day. This one was a tough one to stay with, it threw up many false notions about myself. The degree of compassion often only extends to where my ideas and beliefs are not at odds.

Compassion means being able to pause, reflect and respond.

Compassion means listening completely, including silences.

Compassion means a deep sense of oneness, it cannot exist in separateness.

Compassion means being of service, not being attached.

Compassion is easier with people outside of your immediate family where the opportunity for friction is less.

 

Just a placeholder post while I let this thought linger.