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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
Despite the intensity and frequency of the classes I’ve been attending, there was a plateau of sorts. It was a continuous labouring while the magic was missing. These phases are common in learning and have always led to some brilliant aha moments. This time around they were aha days beginning with a class last week. Subsequent days have been like a breakthrough with different actions coming together.
It began with a brick in one of the classes that awakened the mind and body to bring all the actions that were being taught into one unit as a whole. From the crown of the head to the toes, each area was jogged into wakefulness separately over the days and somehow they started to sort of work together simultaneously too. Of course, it remains a very, very preliminary coming together but the sense of the cogs working in unison is there. Much of the awareness be it limb or spine has been thanks to simple props like the brick, belt or wall. Amongst the props, I prefer the hard wooden blocks and benches for their ability to give clarity. I enjoy the imprint they leave long after the practice is over. The wall while seemingly a support is a tough teacher.
Today’s practice, actually play, was completely spontaneous and not a repetition of anything I’ve learned in class. Just a freewheeling with bricks and the wall. End result was a (what I thought) good looking trikonasana. Post practice, I looked at Guruji’s image in the pose, watched the 26 minutes trikonasana teaching by Geetaji and read from The Alpha and Omega of Trikonasana.
I’m reasonably satisfied with the presentation today but even before comparing my picture to see the improvements required, I noticed areas that were not fully engaged. Studying the asana against Guruji’s image sharpened that understanding while Geetaji’s instructions reminded me of some of the actions that needed to be kept in mind. Finally, the book put the pose in perspective by helping me see the rungs of the ladders in studying an asana. Staying with the imagery of bricks and working with bricks brought to mind the traditional methods and tools of masons. There’s a centrality, evenness and wholeness in a well executed structure, just like what is sought in asana.
Why bother with such attention to detail? Why bother with such rigour when it is essentially just a pose held for a brief time? How does working towards perfecting Trikonasana make a difference in my life or that of anyone else? Every once in a while, I ask myself the why of what I do in the different spaces of my life. The base answer usually remains the same but I do discover aspects of myself as new layers get uncovered. In the case of asana, one answer would be that I want a good savasana experience, that’s where I experience fruition of asana. Another would be that I would like to improve my staying capacity and alignment in sirsasana. The answer that doesn’t usually crop up is that I work hard to develop persistence, courage, equanimity, resilience, compassion, joy, good humour etc. but that is the real why. Those attitudes are the building blocks of living well, keeping the house of one’s life standing firm, come stillness or storm.
I’m keenly aware that sometimes the tempests of illness, injury, loss etc. can be terrifying and houses collapse, people crumple. I too have experienced that bewilderment of loss, literally and metaphorically. It seems impossible to get on the mat or sift through the debris. But brick by brick, a house comes to stand again, doors open, sunshine enters through its windows. Space is created, in the body and the heart.