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.

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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.

Teacher’s Day

In contemporary India, 5th September is marked as Teacher’s Day. A day when schools and colleges set aside regular work to acknowledge and appreciate those who mould minds and further a spirit of enquiry. It was instituted in 1962 on Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birthday. The man was the second president of a free India and a lifelong teacher whose life was grounded in the principles of Advaita Vedanta.

Traditionally, we have always had an auspicious day in honour of the guru, guru pournima, but that’s usually celebrated in the classical disciplines of art, yoga, ayurveda etc. The young people in schools and colleges know of this one better.

A guru is a good fortune that few are privileged to receive. Good and great teachers are thankfully more accessible to us. They are also a rare breed but thankfully at the institute, we have many gifted teachers who share of themselves generously. One thing they all have in common is the spirit of studentship and exploration, never a stasis of knowing it all. Another is the deep satisfaction when a student had that moment of understanding and each teacher has a unique way of expressing that joy. It is a deep personal connect that unites the teacher and taught in a moment of union.

Yesterday was an interesting class, mostly practice alone and it felt like a return to normalcy. That shift is real for this stage of my yoga journey. I feel it in the way breath spreads in my upper torso, like rain. It spreads far more wider and every part feels watered. I look at Guruji’s pictures from the different locations I occupy in the large hall at RIMYI and see how his chest appears in all the photographs. Fearless. Stable. Unshakeable. And I am happy to be in the presence of his living legacy that extends beyond his physical life. One breath that unites across time and space.

The large hall at RIMYI which has been a sanctuary

Perhaps there is progress. My teacher has said we could try a beginner’s class and a therapy one instead of the multiple therapy ones. I don’t know how that will pan out but right now I am grateful for the possibility. It’s almost like I was in exile for two years from a regular class. The last three months felt incredibly long and gut wrenching in the amount of emotional and mental debris it threw up. Is it all out? Hard to say but there is acceptance to stay with it and experience despite the resistance. It’s hard to convey the breakthrough but I’m sure yoga has given this to many before me and will continue to bless more people after me too. It was possible because of my teachers and their teachers in an unbroken line of experential wisdom. The mark of their beauty is their abhyasa and vairagyam. I suspect they’d be uncomfortable with the gratitude but grateful I am, deeply. This is but a small tribute to their generosity and compassion.

My pranams from the heart.

Why do you practise yoga?

I found myself in the library reading transcripts of one of Geetaji’s talks from nearly two decades ago. As always, many gems in there and I wrote down some of them in my book. One of the thoughts that stayed was a question. Why do you practise yoga? If I had to answer for myself, I would say mental clarity, emotional intelligence and perhaps more longingly a chance to experience a spell of being boundless.

It is amazing how much progress has happened with the knee in the last three weeks. All it took was letting the teachers know what I felt. For a long time, I felt that the root of my knee condition lay in the groins and sure enough, I’ve seen a huge turnaround since that day.

It’s a different experience to practise passively, mostly just relaxation and with a lot of assistance. Surrender at multiple levels, to the body’s intelligence, to a teacher’s touch and of the mind’s desire to be doing. Yoga looks very different from a prone position. I suppose when you’re on the ground, you can’t go any lower. Perhaps the last year was about grinding down until I lay face down and stripped the layers of fear. Learning to own up to my life and let that song be heard. It is difficult when you are used to singing alone.

The face of my yoga practice has changed from feeling a lack of availability to acknowledging what is present. The sensitivity of the body is much greater than what it was during days of active asana but I doubted it. How could it be possible for someone so young in yoga to feel that way? I still remain skeptical but there is a tiny voice that tells me that perhaps it is what it is. The ability to experience need not necessarily be related to the length of practice.

Update:

Today’s sutra class was on 1:18 and explored that same boundlessness. It’s unnerving and exhilarating at the same time to find that the experience ‘i’ sought is one that is spoken of in these studies. And as the sutra speaks, transcending even the balance of potential sanskaras, the restraining ones. I can’t help but feel immense gratitude for the opportunity to listen and soak in Prashantji’s words.

Sometimes I wonder if I should write here, and if it isn’t self inflating but then I remember why I started. Perhaps another who begins their journey can see my stumbles and know that it is a journey that is worth it. An offering of gratitude. As Prashantji says, the sadhana is through Shastrasangha, satsangha etc.

This lovely card is a physical expression of an invisible sangha

“Yoga is the word which stands for the whole process and the whole philosophy” – Geeta Iyengar

It’s been a few weeks since Geetaji passed away and I miss her presence in the hall. My eyes roam to the end where she used to sit but that space is taken up by props and the people they support. The energy in there is urgent now, a fire that is constantly stoked to keep the teachings alive. All the teachers pour themselves into the discipline and I can’t help but see how dynamic and organic the process of teaching and learning is. And as I leave, I see the huge picture of Guruji looking into that hall and think all is well.

Hari Om

A wandering student

My evenings have a new routine. Most days, I spend an hour at a park watching the tableau of life play out. Children playing, birds picking their branches for the night, adults walking, older people watching over grandchildren, lovers snatching a cozy conversation and so on. Sometimes I write or read but mostly I just watch the sun as it dips behind tree tops.

Underneath a tamarind tree

I miss watching the sunrise from my new place and the sparrows still haven’t found the bird feeder yet. There are a couple of stray kittens that have stolen my heart and it feels good to shower love with such abandon. The roses continue to bloom as do the jasmines with their heady night scents. The season is beautiful with cool winds and a touch of music as the heart meets the head.

We call him muttbaby 1

In the Iyengar yoga world, there is much excitement with the centenary celebrations and I do hope to make it for atleast one of the days. But, mostly, my offering has been quiet study and fledgling practice. The surprising thing has been the powerful recall of cell memory as I get on the mat.

The Gita continues to be a trusted companion and in the lines I have read many times, I rediscover their beauty all over again albeit with a different flavour. Our interpretations are always coloured by life experiences, always a cumulative of all moments until now.

An alternate set of circumstances has shown a different translation of the same meanings. A year of painful transition or perhaps transformation, only time will tell. For now, it’s a slow beginning once more with nothing the same and everything just so.

I’ve been drawn to the imagery of Patanjali as half man and it has been a focus of contemplation. What does it mean to be human? The bodily representation. of Patanjali as man consists of the trunk resting on the coils of his serpentine half. An ascension of energies possible in a physical structure. A lightness of being in the denseness of existence.

I remain a wandering student destined for self-study and it’s just beginning to dawn on me that maybe it’s liberating. Of course, it also means a lot of wrong turns and a longer time to learn but the journey is worth it. But, it wouldn’t be possible without the wisdom and generosity of knowledge of the giants who came before me. I remain indebted to my many teachers.

Hari Om

10 months later…

It’s taken me nearly 10 months to go through the Gita this time, a slow study of a few shlokas a day with some short stretches of breaks from reading. I turned the last page at about 4:30 this morning and as I sat thinking about the journey through these pages, it was interesting to see how much change was happening in my life during the course of my study. An extremely uncertain and challenging phase which fugued into an even more displaced time.

While my copy of the book is marked with words that spoke directly, it feels like I’ve barely begun to dip into its nectar. 701 verses concluding with Sanjaya’s conviction, “Wherever is Krishna, the Lord of Yoga, wherever is Partha, the archer, there are prosperity, victory, happiness and firm (steady or sound) policy; this is my conviction.”

यत्र योगेश्वर: कृष्णो यत्र पार्थो धनुर्धर:।

तत्र श्रीर्विजयो भूतिर्ध्रुवा नीतिर्मतिर्मम ।।७८।।

There are a couple of interesting points in this shloka. The first being, the presence of both the Lord of Yoga and the archer as a necessary condition. The second is the fruit of their joint presence.

Swami Chinmayananda speaks about Krishna as the ‘marriage between the secular and the sacred’ and the natural progression of such a union being prosperity, victory/ success, happiness and firm policy.

Shree, Vijaya, Bhuti, Dhruva neeti are the sanskrit words and it intrigued me enough to spend some time wondering on the promise they held. While the common translations seem adequate, I cannot help shake a sense of something that goes beyond the word meaning to the root meaning. Unanswered for now but there is a churn inside that throws up flashes like exalted earthly existence, sthiratha and sukham of the Sutras etc. Perhaps, I’m barking up the wrong tree, perhaps not. We’ll see in time.

The last shloka is Sanjaya’s conclusion of the Divine Song and appropriate to one in the thick of a battle for dharma in the context of the Mahabharata. Goals of victory, prosperity and a stable rule. Outside of that context, in the modern day scenario, the battlefield is our internal mindscape. No less intense and the promise is a prosperity of radiant thoughts, small victories over the fears conquered, steadiness of contentment and the permanence of the purpose of our lives, like the pole star.

Finishing this slow plod through the book has only made me feel how much of an Arjuna I remain in between armies, suspended in time and space.

A wooden inlay panel that I love looking at in my home.

i am

A few days ago, I was out early and saw a barefoot runner in the rain. The image stayed with me until I got back home and sat sipping my coffee. There sprung a few lines as I sat in the balcony full of the moment.

FullSizeRender

Fast forward to today, my reading was focused on the Bhagwad Geeta 13:25. Part of the commentary in that shloka spoke about vichara and my mind went to the sutra that talks about vitarka, vichara, ananda and asmita. So, I did what any good student would do and opened up my books. 🙂 I now see the value in memorising and why the Indian system of study has always been heavy on rote learning.

If I had to take it step by step, it would begin with the Geeta shloka that goes, “Some, by meditation, behold the Self in the Self by the Self; others by the “YOGA-OF-KNOWLEDGE” (by SANKHYA YOGA); and others by KARMA YOGA.

The Yog Sutra reads as “Practice and detachment develop four types of samadhi: self-analysis, synthesis, bliss and the experience of pure being.”

For ease of use, I have stuck to the translations by Swami Chinmayananda and B.K.S.Iyengar respectively.

The sutra looks deceptively simple but is like waves upon waves of brilliance. It is the culmination of the previous 5 sutras beginning with Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah (1:12). The commentaries have been pretty extensive on this one and this tasting is just that, a tasting. There are so many layers packed into its wisdom. All I sense now is an intuitive sense of light and I hope it will reveal itself. It’s interesting that the first pada is Samadhi pada and it weaves around the theme of abhyasa and vairagyam be it in the means, effects or obstacles.

It’s interesting how the four stages of samadhi are not just progressive but also integrative. It is clear in the kosas, one enveloping the other or the overlapping elements, gross and subtle or then the construct of the embodiment and all its systems. Progressive in it’s faculty of making available only what one is ready for and integrative in that we already have all that we need to behold the Self within.

My instinctive reaction to anything to do with samadhi is that it is way off my league, I’m most comfortable being a mridu student. And yet, there are moments, like in today’s limitless savasana when there is only space. The frailties of body and mind do not exist there. But, it doesn’t happen often and a day like today feels like a benediction. Outwardly, things are in flux with Amma recovering slowly from a surgery and a limbo in all other areas of life. I haven’t been able to get to class and even home practice was in shambles with hospital duty but I could manage a little today. I don’t know about tomorrow. For now, I am grateful for yoga through study. There is a yoga for everyone.

Hari Om