Flying shoulder stands and some thoughts

Today’s penultimate pose was a sarvangasana, the lightest, tallest one I have ever inhabited. Our teacher said, fly with your trapezius and we flew. All the ‘shoulder surgery‘ we did in class today made for a sarvangasana that was as wide as it was tall, the trunk felt like an open book. The arms and shoulder promise to make their presence known later but that is sweet pain.

I feel a little out of my depth in the Intermediate class, many of the asanas are a challenge mostly because of the knee. The holds are longer in this class and I still have to attain some strength and endurance. I fall over sometimes and come up sooner. The old tendency to find fault is there but there is a little more patience. It is also fascinating to see how much the body can actually move. In one of the parsva salabhasana variations, my teacher came and pulled my arm so easily and had it cross my back. I struggled with moving it and she made it so long. We have far more in us than we think we have, like in running. This asana learning is an energizing one, continuous and fresh everyday. I attend 2 classes- beginners and intermediate. The experience is so different, one assures that there is some proficiency and the other reminds you that you’re a long ways off. It’s a continuum of being student.

Life off the mat has a different quality now. More clarity, more humour and more acceptance. The inevitable conclusion is joy. Sometimes I wonder if it is a phase, this almost euphoric sense of well-being despite the challenges of living. But, it doesn’t seem that way. Not for now atleast. My eyes are wide open and so is my heart. Setbacks are temporary and experienced in the present and then sent their way.

Yoga and running, both were never quite about the body or fitness for me. Even now, with the struggle of the body, it is really about facing myself, fears, flaws, strengths, potential and being able to see them and know that they have their place. It is about being able to fall flat on my face and being able to laugh about it. I used to take myself too seriously, still do but it’s easier to be around people now. I’ve made new friends and feel like part of the community at the institute.

Evening therapy class was interesting. Raya broke down assisting handstands and rope work. It was interesting to see how each person processed the lessons. Although Iyengar yoga appears to be regimented and rigid in sequencing, I’ve had firsthand experience of not following any of the conventional rules when my teachers would work on me. It is like classical Indian music, once there is a certain maturity, the rules can be bent to suit a conscious purpose. The lovely performances are often improvised but this is mastery level and beyond.

As for me, I found myself wondering what right do I have looking at this when I can’t yet do a handstand by myself. I’m probably the only one in all the helpers/ observers/ teachers who cannot do what I guess are basic requirements for someone to be assisting. Anyways, I listen and observe, knowing that I might not retain much but believe that all that wisdom will come back when I am ready. In the meanwhile, I help where required and that takes me out of my doubt and questioning for that period.

How many Trikonasanas?

This morning, I wanted to go to the hall to practice but decided to practise at home instead. I live a fair distance away from the institute and travel to and fro easily takes 2 hours. Hopefully, I can go tomorrow. Anyways, I didn’t quite have a plan until a few minutes on the mat.

It was a different approach to basic standing poses, unknowingly entered into. Arm work to sensitize the back which in turn fed the arms and resulted in a long Trikonasana, long Ardha Chandrasana and long forward bends. Sometimes I record myself to see how it looks from the outside and today it surprised me. Internally, all I am focused on is the effort while externally it is about the outcome. And a few years of practice does have outcomes. I was reasonably satisfied with the expression of the pose.

This awareness of having a little knowledge has been a surprise not just in asana but also in other aspects. Recently, I went on a tree walk and a birding session and in both instances, figured out that I was probably not a novice. Amateur yes, but not completely raw. This identity is a new one to inhabit. It reiterated what my teacher said about all of us always learning. That doesn’t mean that we haven’t learnt anything yet. It’s probably not such an issue for most people and I wonder at how easily people accept their proficiency. I doubt. A lot. But perhaps, this is a better way to keep the mind open to continue to learn.

Back to the asanas, since there wasn’t too much of a focus except the arm and back to aid the pose, I played with increasing the difficulty of the pose by taking a brick for the upper hand, reducing the turn of the back leg and so on while keeping the attention on the back. Basically, exploring the capacity of the body to obey, extend and push to the brink just to the point where a new baseline will be set. One of my challenges is to reduce the turn of the back leg in parsvottanasana, virabhadrasana 1 etc. Today, there was joy in getting the hand to the floor while maintaining the integrity of Trikonasana, as well as achieving a small reduction in the turn of that back leg. Like that song, how many Trikonasanas must a sadhaka practise before it is an effortless one?🙂

Edit: Post typing the above section, I ended up picking The Tree of Yoga to read and the page opened to the chapter on Effort, Awareness and Joy. The Guru always appears.


In gratitude

Yoga Help(er)

It’s been a couple of Fridays now that I am not a student at the medical/therapy class but I am still present. ‘Change of roles today?‘, ‘You used to be a student, so nice to see you as a helper‘ and a host of other encouraging remarks and smiles make me feel shy. I’m not quite willing to accept that I may be a ‘helper’, it seems unreal. So much so that I didn’t want to post it here but it is also a part of my journey. When my teacher suggested that I come to help, I was just grateful to be able to keep coming to the big hall. I would have been content just to pass props or tidy up and just watch but I also get to be there for someone.

Today, I was with one student. Mostly, just observing and assisting as instructed. We spent some time together and in close proximity, I realized we both were the same, riddled with fear. Her fears were predominantly about falling and hurting herself all over again. (She was wheelchair bound a few years ago.) Mine were about facing myself. Listening to her talk, I could see how fear leaks into our perceptions about ourselves and what we can or cannot do. At the start of the session, her body was in a lopsided way and by the end of the class, there was a symmetry and calmness in her face. She had done what she thought she couldn’t. I would feel that way after class but could never see it for myself until I saw it in her.

The only way out for me was to trust my teachers when I didn’t have faith in anything. Their belief was enough. When I think back about it now, there was some incredible amount of surrender that was at work for yoga to work its magic. For almost a year before I worked up the courage to speak to my teacher, I was in a slump. There wasn’t enough yoga balance to see me through one of the most difficult years of my life. Despite knowing what I needed, I couldn’t do anything to get myself out of deep despair. I needed to ask for help and then be willing to receive it. It is an incredible privilege to have the option to do so.

These days, I’m happy. Not relatively happy. Just happy. Every day comes without the weight of yesterday or tomorrow. Much of my life is uncertain and I have no firm ground under my feet but there is faith. In yoga. The same yoga that allowed me to rebuild again and teach that no matter what, one can always start again. It feels good to be able to practice regularly like I used to. And as always, surprising to see how much is remembered by the body and heart.

I find it a little easier to trust myself and allow others in. The other day after class, there were so many hellos and how are yous that it felt like, maybe I am with my people.

 

 

 

 

The dance of life

A couple of years ago, if someone had to ask me to choose between being steeped in yoga and my normal life, I wouldn’t be able to choose the former. Yet, it was always a dream to fulfill once my responsibilities were over.

And then the last year unraveled in ways I hadn’t imagined. Life threw quite a few curveballs in quick succession and forced a complete destruction of all that I held normal. Every single thing. All the yoga classes over the last few months worked with erasing the vestiges of that limited self, forcing me to confront myself. It’s amazing how much we build around the idea of who we are instead of who we actually are. Deeply flawed and potentially divine.

Destruction happens. It’s always happening in nature when leaves turn yellow and fall, creatures die, lava incinerates and tsunamis wash away many lives. Yet, nature creates, not recreates. Even humans. We say rebuild but it’s actually creating from scratch because the old does not exist any longer. That is consumed by time. The Natraj statue in the library was a beautiful representation of that thought.

The angst has passed, some anxiety remains and I find saying No helps, deciding one way or the other helps. Unless I close the door and walk out into the sunshine, I will never be in the light. It is not the way of the world, to drop back and trust that the ground will receive you. But, it is the way of the sutras, of continuous, dedicated abhyasa and vairagyam.

It reminds me of something I learned early – be careful what you wish for, it just may come true. It certainly appears to be the case now and I’m humbled, grateful and a bit unbelieving of my good fortune to study yoga. Sometimes great things are born of terrible pain.

No human is limited

Watching Kipchoge breeze over the finish line was a moment of goosebumps. I watched the videos many times and was thrilled each time. What struck me most was his simple, powerful belief of limitlessness and the keen awareness of his tremendous sadhana. Running is very humbling, like asana. Most of the work is just practice, usually not good enough but then some days there is flight. Like in yoga.

I miss running, the sweat against cool mornings and the regular spade work to chip away at time or distance. It’s nearing 3 years since I had to give it up and sometimes I fantasize about running again. I still remember the touch of the road on my bare feet and the sense of clarity in the zone. Kipchoge says we’re limitless so maybe…

Anyways, maybe it was all the excitement about running that made me wear my marathon tee to practice. I rarely put it on now that I don’t run but Kipchoge reminded me that limitless is possible and asana is that. It was a conversation starter and as I spoke, I realized that that was also me, a hardworking runner who had it in her to train consistently.

I’ve felt ignorant as far as asanas go and thought that practising in the hall might be a bit impostor like for my stage. It’s an irrational thought but one that prevented me from doing many things as part of a group. I ran alone, I practised alone, I studied alone. There’s a saying in the running world, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I didn’t seek speed as much as I sought distance yet I went alone. It’s the same with yoga. I seek depth more than breadth so maybe it is time to be a participant too?

I’ve started to go to the institute for practice on the recommendation of my teacher and it’s a big deal for me. The first couple of times, I ended up practising for an hour before hurrying away. Yesterday, I was present for over an hour and a half, repeating what I had done the previous day. And just like that, practice in a hall full of people felt normal. It reminded me of my early days in the medical class when I did my own routine except that this session is silent save for the sound of props as and when used. At the end of it, I was soaked in sweat and content with the effort. Beginner’s toil.

Friday was twists and I decided to repeat the same in practice. Standing twists tend to irritate my knee a bit but keeping the leg a little bent prevents it from hyper extending. The seated twists are ok with elevation and shorter holds.

It’s always challenging, this class of asanas with their assymetry. The twist happens but the symmetry and length don’t come easy. How does one maintain space and stability of an undisturbed centre even when wringing it? I suppose it must be like the eye of the storm. Twisting poses have enticing benefits of losing inches but that doesn’t interest me as much as the effects on the mind.

As a day, Saturday was an eye opener. I spent time with a health worker in one of the slums and realized what a huge world of difference exists between my world and theirs. I found myself hoping that they too could find the blessings of yoga to cope with their difficult lives. There is much good work happening with primary health care but to make limitless happen, the shifts required are of the heart and mind. Perhaps one day we can see yoga as a way of life right from childhood.

Beginning again

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

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

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

The Art of Yoga

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

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

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

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

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