Month’s end and year’s close

December was intense, packed to capacity. Yet it didn’t feel like a blur but just a full measure of itself. It was a month of a 2 week intensive over and above regular classes, volunteer work, a couple of out of town trips, some personal upheaval and a new experience of reading with someone. M and I have been reading Light on Life. Aloud. The last time something like this happened was in school when the teachers would make us read in turns. This has been a great exercise in more ways than one. The nature of these readings is different, slower, in smaller portions and in the light of lived experience, more nuanced. It is much richer for the exchange of experience, interpretation and questions that arise. Consequently, much of my earlier readings have surfaced in context to the experience of yoga today and I have been re-reading them. We read in person or online everyday and it is something I look forward to. The book is an all-time favourite and I am delighted when she finds joy in its words.

While it seems like all the work we do as yoga practitioners is physical, the bulk of yoga really is in the mess and muddle of living our day to day lives. This book is a beautiful exploration of yoga beyond the mat and I read it cover to cover at least once a year. It is also one which sees a generous dipping into whenever I need a shot in the arm. Open up any page and there is something that speaks to you.

As I assist in classes and therapy sessions or then sub for a teacher, I see myself in the struggles of other bodies. Outwardly, I seem all put together but on the mat, there is a dance of making space and pushing boundaries. The changing vagaries of a woman’s physiology make time on the mat a practice of surrender. I don’t know what the day will bring and have to listen to the body’s needs. That is a separate post in itself. It is good abhyasa to prepare for life as someone growing older and heading towards the next phase. Considering the intensive, practice was not possible with the classes we were doing but now there is a routine back in place. Practice in the hall has been good as there is so much to learn, from the teachers of course but also in being helped by and helping one’s peers.

Since it is the turn of the year, it is also habitual to reflect on the year that has passed and think about the one that is an yet to be born. Right at the start, Covid and unemployment hit. Workwise, it has been a lacklustre year although I managed to keep afloat. But, somewhere there was a firm faith that I would receive what I needed and that is exactly what happened. Asana practice was a mix of progress, slowing down, changing track. As someone with many problem areas, it is both a blessing and sometimes a mild frustration. Blessing because there is time spent in basic actions, working slowly and gaining a sensitivity that might not have been there otherwise. It also helps me when I have to help someone else. Mid year saw the reopening of RIMYI, offline classes and a gradual change of my role there. It took me time to inhabit this role. At year’s end, I belong. And I remain fascinated by how one man created such a tremendous wealth of wisdom in his lifetime. His children, grand children, teachers and students carry on the legacy and listening to them, learning from them is precious.

Yoga has always been there as the path to walk on but I didn’t think it would choose me. I kept looking over my shoulder thinking that it could not possibly be calling me. But, as everything else fell off by the way side and I stood alone, it was impossible to not see that it was really harking to me. I’m content and my heart feels filled to the brim with the shape of my life. Studentship and service is a good place to be. I would like to add another day of practice in the hall in the coming year and work with renewed vigour on the texts. Signing off with one of the aha moments from a recent pranayama class which really stayed with me, “Penetration happens from the back body”.

Practice and Plateaus

Back in the hall after Diwali break and it was a quiet practice session in the morning. It was a little nippy and I put my mat near the entrance where the sun lightly toasted the floor. Restorative asanas mostly. That corner found a few people huddling for warmth. While the cool floors are great in summer, in cooler weather, they can be, well, cold. Some of Prashantji’s words from the Patanjali Jayanti Q & A session kept circling in my head. There are some answers there that I need to apply, implement. The sibling also echoed similar sentiments so I’ve been re-examining and working on rearranging things in my life.

Recently, I read something which resonated loudly.

“​If you always put limits on yourself and what you can do, physical or anything, you might as well be dead. It will spread into your work, your morality, your entire being. There are no limits, only plateaus. But you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.” – Bruce Lee

I didn’t quite identify the plateau phase for what it is. And that last sentence echoed Geetaji’s exhortation. The plateaus are such an essential part of the journey. One needs time to assimilate and synthesize before moving on. While it appears static, there is a lot happening under the surface, just that it is not visible. Perhaps, one doesn’t really slow down enough or maybe the sensitivity is lacking to observe and note dispassionately. All one thinks of is the seeming stagnation.

Post practice this morning, I sat outside for a while and tried to think about what my practice showed me today. And today’s observation was that asana is a container for the breath, mind and body to play. Asana as a seat is a witnessing of that interwoven nature of all three. In my raw state, all I see are glimpses and the presence of all three but isolating the strands to identify them individually and in their interconnected way is not available. I suppose one needs to spend time in lots of plateaus and persist with devotion and courage. (1.14)

Holiday Practice- Flamingo Inspired

A quick intercity trip meant the chance to see flamingos. The timing though was off but I did manage to see a small group flying in and then feeding. Not the flamboyance I expected but I hope to get a look soon enough. While driving back to Pune, I thought about the birds and thought it might be fun to try out one legged asanas. These birds are stable on one leg for long stretches of time since they are able to lock their ligaments and tendons in their legs. This reduces the muscular effort required and they loaf in the quirky position (for us). There are other birds that do this too but the long legs of the flamingo make it particularly striking.

Image shared by a friend

While the birds may enjoy their snooze on one leg, for humans it is a challenge to spend any significant amount of time in a similar position. It is hard to find both stability and serenity on one leg. The requirement for balance is great and paradoxically, that is the first thing to be lost as one thinks about it. Instead focus on an action, a location, either internal or external, results in balance. Seeking balance is worrying about the future while focus is being here, now and doubts belong to the past.

One of the first one legged poses we learn is Vrikshasana, the tree pose. So, I started and ended with that one after going through all the other one-legged poses that were available to me. It was a study in evaluation more than exploration. The way the left and right side of the body behaves is a classic Goldilocks problem, too much or too little. 🙂 With these kinds of asanas, there are certain days when it is more readily available. I feel steady and there is a lightness while being firm but on others, especially PMS time, it is a struggle. Asanas are truly a living lab. So many factors determine the texture of a pose, internally and externally. Age, physical and mental conditions (short term and long term), weather, state of the world at large etc. It changes how one approaches the asanas too.  

It wasn’t a sequence led practice yesterday, just an assumption of the poses to see what worked and what didn’t. While the initial tendency was to seek balance, soon the awareness shifted to simply the actions and locations. And I see the tremendous value of all standing poses. If I have to look at the asanas from an aesthetic point of view, there is much lacking but the reality is inaccessibility of certain actions/ areas for different reasons. It is like compacted soil, takes time to coax it to soften. But one day, it yields. As I type, I realize that I didn’t factor in the long drives to and fro plus a lack of sufficient sleep. We live and learn.

Notes

Tadasana, Urdhva Hasatasana, Urdhva Baddanguliyasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana, Uttanasana, Supta Padangushtasana 1, 2, Vrikshasana, Ardha Chandrasana, Virabhadrasana 3, Uthita Hasta Padangushtasana, Garudasana, Urdhva Prasarita ek pada Uttanasana, Urdhva Prasarita Ek pada adho mukha Svanasana, Prone akunchanasana, Baddakonasana, Upavishtakonasana, Ardha Badda Padmottanasana, Vrikshasana, Wall Urdhva Prasarita Padasana

Holiday Practice – Krounchasana

There is a story associated with the origin of the Ramayana. Sage Valmiki was enjoying an idyllic bath in the Tamasa river under a canopy of a Kadamba tree. There was a pair of Sarus Cranes in the midst of a Spring fuelled passion and the sage watched them with an indulgent smile. Out of the blue, an arrow came whizzing and pierced the male krouncha and his mate was distraught. Seeing the distress, he instinctively cursed the hunter in verse, supposedly the first Sanskrit verses to be composed in metre.

मा निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमः शाश्वतीः समाः । यत् क्रौञ्चमिथुनादेकमवधीः काममोहितम् ॥

Loosely translated, it reads- O Nishada, since you have killed one of the pair of kraunchas in the midst of love, you will never be permanently established anywhere.

The Sage was enamored by the way the verse flowed out of his mouth and couldn’t stop repeating it to himself. Later Brahma reveals his wish that Valmiki write the story of Rama.

All our epics, old stories and myths have a lush backdrop of flora and fauna, in their season and place. The krouncha has been variously identified as heron, demoiselle crane and Sarus Crane. The last though seems fitting considering the birds. Here’s a video about the tallest flying birds. This short snippet depicts the sarus cranes very beautifully. They are a species that has borne the brunt of loss of habitat like so many others but that is probably matter for elsewhere.

I’d initially thought of going through all standing poses by keeping time but it was simply too hot for such an active practice. So, forward extensions it was and I found myself in krounchasana, which is an infrequently touched asana. Contemplating the name of the asanas is useful as an exercise. Invoking the name invokes memory of the sensory experiencing of the object and often it does more for the asana that a detailed set of cues.  

Looking at Guruji’s picture, I admire not just the presentation but also the unwavering discipline he had in pursuing his passion. How many krounchasanas would he have done in his lifetime? I guess more than the how, it is really the why of his asana that we ought to enquire into as Prashantji says.

Holiday Practice – Sarvangasana

Mother’s Day today and thought the mother of asanas was a good one to study.

Recently, I chanced upon a podcast that wanted to unpack the king and queen of asanas and the discussion began about the gendered nature of the terms before exploring why some yoga teachers do not teach inversions and why some of them do. I dropped off after some time as it didn’t seem to really talk about the asanas per se. Sometimes I think language obfuscates, especially in today’s fraught world. One is so afraid of offending anyone or saying anything that may be construed as politically incorrect.

Before practice today, I read up the section on Sarvangasana and Halasana. Guruji talks about it as the mother of asanas. “As a mother strives for harmony and happiness in the home, so this asana strives for the harmony and happiness of the human system.” Sarva Anga asana. No other asana makes this claim of the entire embodiment.

Earlier in the day, one of my friends had written a lovely post about her mother and in response, I had mentioned that she was a wonderful mother herself. She has no children but she is nurturing, compassionate, fierce and loving to the people and creatures in her life. Generous beyond measure in her thoughts, words and deeds. A mother, is she not? And I think about all my mothers (I’ve been nurtured by many at varying points in my life) and my daughters and what being a mother means to them from their unique roles in my life. It is the first relationship we develop as an embodiment in the womb and one that thrives in an environment of love. Happiness cannot exist without love in the heart, for oneself and all around.

Sarvangasana as an asana works on the entire human system, the complete circuit of connection. Maybe the world needs a sarvangasana equivalent to dissolve the separatist tendencies.

Notes

Adho Mukha Virasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana, Uttanasana, Parvatsasana, Gomukhasana, Paschima Namaskarasana in Virasana, Supta Padangushtasana cycle, Urdhva Prasarita Padasana, Sarvangasana, Ek pada Sarvangasana, Parsvaika Sarvangasana, Halasana, Supta konasana, Parsva halasana, Setuband Sarvangasana, Savasana

Holiday practice- Gomukhasana

Thought I’d practice to one of my teacher’s classes but about 20 minutes in, I went my own way. Gomukhasana was on my mind since yesterday’s Garudasana exploration and I tinkered around playing with the leg position. Light on Yoga and Niño gave silent company as virasana and its variations, bhekasana, rajkapotasana, ek pada rajkapotasana, dhanurasana, etc. laid themselves out. It was not an in-depth study but more in the nature of a tasting. Touch and go as I tested the ability and capacity of the body. I’ve been more cautious than risk taking with respect to knee positions and it seems ok so far.

It is fascinating how time flies when on the mat some days. Today felt a bit like playing lego. Make, unmake, remake and so on as I entered gomukhasana through different doors. And in the bargain, the route that is emerging seems to be one that will aid some of the asanas that I struggle with like chaturanga dandasana and the balancing ones.

Something from today’s morning reading (2.25) stayed- ‘All these are subject to the gunas, which blend the behavioural pattern of an individual. If we understand the flow of these forces, we can reach balance, and from balance go on to true freedom. If not, we are swayed from one extreme to another, between pleasure and another pain. Yoga, says Patanjali, is the way to harmonize ourselves at every level with the natural order of the universe, from the physical to the most subtle, to reach the total state of health which brings stability, to cultivate the mind with real understanding, and to reach out ultimately to undifferentiated infinity.’

The concept of gunas is such a simple and profound one. The progression from understanding to balance to freedom as mentioned in the commentary matches the same simplicity and profundity of the concept itself. As I look at the sutras again and again, listen to some of their unpacking, I remain mesmerized by not just the thoughts but also the order and clean delivery. In my early readings of the Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, these were accessible through the lens of asana but over time, I am beginning to see how richly packed it is.

Holiday Practice – Garudasana

RIMYI follows an academic calendar from June to April. May is simply too hot for class. Usually, I’d feel mildly bereft but this year, I have been looking forward to this month. The last couple of years has been packed with classes and the last one in particular was intense with the additional commitments. So, this time off from structured class has been much needed.

Today’s practice was meant to be inversions but had to abandon it midway as the body was uncooperative. But, it was good as the enquiry into a shaky Ardha Chandrasana found me in Garudasana. There was no conscious sequence followed, it was more of play and exploration. Long story short, Garudasana was what I needed to practise. Inversions didn’t get thrown out completely though. I did end up in Sarvangasana that was tall, steady and comfortable. Even the Ek pada Sarvangasana had leftover imprints of the earlier pose.

While in Garudasana, I thought about the name as I was getting into the pose and that changed the texture of the asana. Simply invoking the idea of the bird invoked power, stability, control and an effortlessness. A mythical bird that features in the epics, it belongs to the raptor family like kites and eagles and epitomize elegance. It is a pleasure to watch them in the sky, whether they’re riding the thermals or swooping down. They embody power and effortless grace in their control and speed. Rupa, Lavanya, Balam.

The sutra says, रूपलावण्यबलवज्रसंहननत्वानि कायसंपत् . Guruji’s translation reads, ‘Perfection of the body consists of beauty of form, grace, strength, compactness, and the hardness and brilliance of a diamond’. In most of the commentaries, there is barely anything on this sutra. The Garuda Purana though has a lovely section (15) that unpacks the body, physical and esoteric. It provides a tidy account of the human embodiment which points to the way in which the body can be made fit for yoga. It is paradoxical at times how much the study of the body is really a study of the self beyond the confines of matter.

Practice is like a walk, you never quite know what you will discover. No matter how the body and mind behave, there is something revealed. I’ve been in a bit of a slump on the professional front. Part of the perils of working independently. But, these times also provide an opportunity for immersion in things that bring a sense of contentment and fulfilment. Practice, the written word, walks, trees and skies. Somehow, I find it harder to do work which does not sync with the rest of my life and that makes it a very narrow road to walk. Some days like today are a complete surrender to the Guru, the subject and silence. The answers will come, they usually do.

Notes

Supta Tadasana, Urdhva Hastasana, Trikonasana, Vira bhadrasana 1, Ardha Chandrasana, Supta Padangushtasana, Uthita Hasta Padangushtasana supported, Sirsasana, Supta Virasana, Supta Padangushtasana 2, Upavishta Konasana, Ardha Chandrasana, Garudasana, Ardha Chandrasana, Chair supported independent Sarvangasana, Ek pada sarvangasana, Vipareeta Karani, Savasana.

Ardha

In general, there is a sort of established pattern of asana categories covered every month at RIMYI. First week is standing poses, second one is usually forward bends, third belongs to backbends, fourth to pranayama. If there is a fifth class, it is an inversions special. This month has 5 weeks and today was the inversions tasting. The asanas taken for study were all the ‘ardha‘ variations of Sirsasana, Adho Mukha Vrikshasana and Halasana.

From a personal point of view, it was great to spend time in these as I find my way back to staying upside down. I’ve found them a challenging group primarily due to fear of injuring compromised parts of my body. While I’ve used willpower to stay and progress, it was not sustainable for very long. So, I had to retrace my steps and use alternate asanas as I worked on ability in other areas. And gradually the necessary prerequisites have slowly developed, making the poses better accessible. There is also good sense now to err on the side of caution rather than simply push through. Today’s ardha sirsasana/ urdhva dandasana was a good way to experience the firmness and lightness of the legs, the lift of the spine that ought to be experienced in sirsasana.

The ardha stage is akin to a halfway home of sorts. Confidence is gained, new skills are learned and honed as one learns to adapt. Control is a key skill, how to maintain equanimity as the position changes. Learning to extend forward in uttanasana and prasarita padottanasana without using hands was one of the ways I learned how to enter and exit the asana in an even, measured way. Begin well, stay well and end well. Asanas are like waves, they are formed and dissolve time and again as we assume their spaces. While inhabiting that form and substance for the time we are in the pose, there is an ocean of difference in merely staying and being intimate with it. The Ardha stage is the blossoming of that intimacy.

Sthira Sukham Asanam

While in savasana today, there was a thought about how balance is not about balance but balancing. Sort of like homeostasis. It is a set of moments of steadiness which makes it a balance. What we seek or should seek is not balance but a steadiness, a comfort with the act of being steady, moment after moment. Sthira. Sukha. Asanam. Asana is a shaping of space in time, until it is free from the constraints of both.

I miss the hall at RIMYI

I’ve been observing classes this week since getting the Covid bug. I watch tiny squares with bodies in different stages of entering, staying and exiting the poses. And I see fatigue in many students, the fatigue of an isolated practice. It must be hard for the teachers too. Everyone doesn’t enter the pose at the same time, camera angles are different, internet glitches etc mean that even the teaching is mostly a one way street. How much harder it is to unify energy that is dissipated across so many homes? And yet, there has been progress for many thanks to the class coming home. 

This evening, I watched the class I demonstrate for and was reminded again of why we spend so much time in ‘straightening’ the hands and legs, ‘extending’ the spine, ‘lifting’ the chest. I remember my early struggles especially in Adho Mukha Svanasana. Recently in one of the classes, my teacher gave an interesting analogy of a 4 wheel drive in the pose. It made for an experiencing of the actions in each of the 4 limbs differently and to see how they all come together in one unified movement, despite their differences. Fine tuning like the old radios, again an analogy by the same teacher.

Back to balance, for example ardha chandrasana was always a tricky pose to maintain. The minute I thought I had it, I would lose balance. It was not a matter of practice, it was a matter of approach to understand how ‘sthira‘ and ‘sukha‘ were not just characteristics of asana but also a mind and breath space to inhabit them. And in the process, control came, balance was established and the joy of the asana was experienced. ‘Imagine a vast ardha chandrasana‘ like my teacher mentioned in one of the classes a couple of months ago. 

Observing classes is so different for me now from what it was even a couple of years ago. Back then, it was an intellectual understanding, now I’m able to tap into memory to remember sensations of the different actions. But that was a necessary stage, to learn to look and hear. It allowed me to see and listen beyond just the shapes and observe quietness, activity, dullness, luminosity, etc. The sutras 46 to 48 in sadhana pada talk about this at a more exalted level of the soul, which is light years away for the likes of me. But even at the level of body, breath and mind, it is joyous. 

Sometimes forced breaks are good. The pandemic gave me 5 classes a week plus time on the mat. A lot of input, doing and experiencing but not as much time devoted to articulating it. That too is necessary as one creates a lexicon of asana through one’s own understanding. We each do this differently, through the lens of our passions and interests whether music, art, literature, science, nature, etc. This period of doing nothing but observing in savasana has been good to allow the cream of various lessons to come to the surface. As always, I feel incredibly lucky to have come across this system of study which is at once so simple and so deep in its enquiry. There is something for everyone.

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.