Pot Pourri

Yesterday evening, Prashantji spoke about the difference between the humbleness of a giver and a receiver in the context of breath and mind. And that stayed. As I begin to find my way around his classes, I am keenly aware that I am not quite eligible but I persevere. There is enough faith in the subject and the process that I know things will become apparent when the conditions are right. In the meanwhile, all I am required to do is show up sincerely. The question he posed made me feel as though his class really begins when it ends. The precepts he talks about, while to do with the breath and mind, are really more a nudging into enquiry, practice off the mat.

Coming back to the question about the humbleness of giver’s mind and the receiver’s mind, I can’t help but marvel at the subtlety and nuance of the bhava in each of the roles. One can draw a parallel with the ‘knower’, ‘known’ and ‘knowing’ here which is quite a recurrent theme in philosophical studies. First of all, it is interesting to see the terms used as giver and receiver versus giver and taker. The former, for me, implies value which cannot be quantified. It could be considered akin to two sides of a coin, a completion of circuit, a oneness. The giver is not really separate from the receiver. Seen in this manner, yoga of/for the breath and the mind begin to make sense.

Dead Man’s Fingers on a decaying tree stump is just one small example of the giving and receiving one sees in nature.

Giver and taker are more in the nature of a transactional exchange. I suppose the initial inhale and come up, exhale and go down could be considered in this fashion. Vaishyavarna or the class of traders. Guruji has referenced the castes in context of stages of a student/ practitioner. In fact, today’s class was an interesting one in terms of these exchanges while we cycled through a few krounchasanas towards the end of the class. It was something to observe even as the class started from the very first samasthithi. Tadasana or Samasthithi has always been a fascination for me. It is a whole body asana and coincidentally, also one of the options in Sunday evening’s class. These symmetrical poses are wonderful in their ability to hold a mirror, to show the sama in samasana.

I think about posting here but somehow the day slips away from me and I barely manage to make notes about my thoughts/ reflections from class. And before I know it, many days, weeks pass. I did think about doing a regular wrap to consolidate the week’s learnings/ reflections but that seems a herculean task now, considering the way the subject is opened up by different teachers. It is like rain, wonderful life-sustaining rain. And perhaps, I am not ready for all that profusion as I find myself trying to navigate the vastness that is yog. But I do believe that it will seep into my being and sprout some saplings when the time is right.

Dwi Hasta Bhujasana

Externally, my appearance is deceptive. It seems like everything is in working order and all is smooth. Reality is a different story. Old injuries and surgeries, structural imbalances and degenerative losses as a result of the natural progression of life mean that from ankles (shredded ligaments) to knees (grade 4 chondromalacia) to humerus surgery (thrice) to cervical spondylosis, there is little that has managed to escape the ravages of life. I’m not going to list age related fading but that too adds up. And yet, the miracle of an embodied existence is that healing occurs, changes happen, range, strength and energy are vitalized.

This morning, I decided to do a recorded lesson although I wasn’t sure how much I might be able to follow with a troubled knee. But, there are modifications and common sense is usually sufficient to know when to stop. It turned out to be a balancings class and I learned how to do Dwi Hasta Bhujasana. It was a first, attempting this asana and it was playful. Enter, fall, enter again, fall again until it happened and then happened repeatedly. Eventually, I could hold the pose for a few breaths. And it was a reminder of how basic asanas are so essential to easy, safe and effortless entry into challenging asanas. And somehow Chaturanga Dandasana also seems to have improved although moving into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana without dropping is still not possible.

As always, a new asana means spending time looking at pictures and reading the books. LOY has a different entry into the pose compared to how we entered it today. Many things have become refined since that seminal volume but the book is a wonderful reference. The images are great to see where to go, how to strike a pose. Asana names are fascinating for me and they make me stay with their sounds and feelings. They make me seek to understand what lies beyond the shape and structure, benefits etc. Indra is the deity said to be residing in the hands and I think perhaps, this is a way to explore by steeping into possibilities of the tattvas until they become apparent. Way back before I joined RIMYI, there was a teacher in the neighbourhood who had introduced some esoteric concepts in the classes I was attending. I was intrigued then but didn’t pursue it, somehow there was a sense of caution that these are strong energy practices that should not be attempted without guidance. But, now I find I want to understand and explore actively.

In all asanas, there is tadasana and savasana like Guruji would say. But, it is quite a journey from standing upright to surrendering to the earth.

Backbending in July

Recently, I remembered how, as a beginner, I wished that I could study with Prashantji someday and then it struck me that I was in his class now. And that sort of summarizes my RIMYI journey. Slow, meandering, unexpected but completely organic. The more I attend classes of varying levels, I see the incredible value of the foundational actions in asanas. Keeping at the basics has actually been a faster progression.

The last 2 weeks have been hectic with multiple overlapping deadlines but classes were a constant and they were instrumental in some breakthrough in personal practice. I injured the problem knee over the weekend and so couldn’t do many asanas in the classes. So a switch to the therapy sequence from a few years ago. But this time, I explored some of the kriyas Prashantji talks about and it was illuminating. There is such a marked difference in sensitivity and consequently, access. Like yesterday we were in some quiet Urdhva Dhanurasanas and then were asked to do the regular one without much attention and the violence to the nerves in the latter was so stark. It was like sensing in HD.

Yesterday, Urdhva Dhanurasana was also a learning period as the teachers and assistants worked on each other with hands-on adjusting. It was quite interesting to work with different kinds of bodies, see how the adjustments worked etc. In the bargain, I think I must have done 30 odd Urdhva Dhanurasanas but it was not tiring. I’ve not been practising it much lately and anticipated soreness today but there was minimal discomfort. I suppose there is more skill and less muscular effort in the execution of these poses now.

Speaking of backbends, Sunday’s class was a Chair Vipareeta Dandasana marathon with nearly 90 minutes of the asana, with breaks of course. But, that was again another first for me. Prashantji spoke about yoga as ‘happenings’ rather than ‘doings’ and happenings need ‘stayings’. And somehow that long hour and a half exploration of Vipareeta Dandasana provided the ‘staying’ necessary to move far beyond normal capacity with no distress.

Much of the teachings of yoga are esoteric, hidden in plain sight but the likes of me cannot decode it. It is an extremely slow revealing as one listens to teachers, listens to them carefully, repeatedly and slowly things become apparent, like clouds drifting apart to let the sun appear. At these junctures, there is usually a coming together of different influences speaking of the very same principles. Some of my reading and listening these past weeks have been a case in point.

Most days, I first lie on the Vipareeta Dandasana bridge before the beginning of class. It is the prop that held me through inexplicable heaviness of the heart but now it is a feeling of surrender that I experience. In some sense, it is a prayer, an entering into a sanctuary. The feel of the hard wood on my back and the release of the body as it yields to the support are always a quiet gathering. At day’s end, I’m simply glad for the opportunity to study in person with my teachers, feel the comfort of the call and response of the invocation and experience the gift of one man’s incredible sadhana.

“Learning deeply means learning slowly”

June is hurtling full speed. So many changes and turnings. Volunteering, hectic work schedules and everyday household chores have meant packed days. My teacher asked how I managed to do so much and my immediate reply was that I start fairly early in the day. But later as I thought about it, I realized that I pack in a fair bit simply because I only do things that I like, things that make me happy. Simple things that feed my heart and head, like yoga, walks, trees, pottering around in my little balcony garden, reading etc. While the trade off has been a more frugal living, I have had a largesse of contentment and energy.

Offline classes began last week and it has been both familiar and strange. Familiar because of the same teachers and space but strange with the reduced intake of students. There is a pivoting and finding balance in offline and hybrid modes. In some ways, adapting to the pandemic was easier than adapting to reverting to a pre Covid routine. In some way, the increased convenience of online has meant people choosing to stick to it exclusively as well. There is practical merit since one avoids traffic and parking woes, time taken for the commute etc. but I also see it as increasingly isolating. With the increasing dependence on technology and screens, our sensory experience of the world also gets reduced as the years pass. We’re creatures of nature, meant to fully inhabit our embodiment but that is fast fading. I wonder what we will evolve into. But, that lies in the realm of imaginings and I’ll let it be.

Classes have been good, practice is decent. My struggles with balancing and Sirsasana continue so have taken a different route with focus on Sarvangasana. And I’m reasonably happy with the progress. I’ve been playing around with Niralamba Sarvangasana from a stable shoulder stand. I thought my problem with those poses was more of the mind but actually they are to do with the existing conditions and old injuries of the neck, shoulder and arm besides extreme hyper extension of my joints. As a school child, my PT teacher would get exasperated when my arms would refuse to straighten while marching. There has been some reduction in the angle of hyperextension over the years thanks to asana adjustments.

Earlier today, I was observing the participants as I was watching the class and saw myself in many of them. The same difficulty in lifting the back and buttocks, thighs and knees in Halasana and it all makes so much sense now. The uncompromising attention to limbs and trunk. And once again I am struck by the systematic and logical structuring of asana actions for beginners. I love beginner classes. There is a certain vigour, freshness and energy to it which changes the alchemy of the body and mind. I love the other classes too as they get more subtle and work on the breath and mind but much of it is way above my paygrade. I’m happy to simply absorb by osmosis. I know it will make sense when there is readiness and ripeness. Till then, we tinker. Recently, I was rereading a book (Range By David Epstein) I quite enjoyed and was struck once again by a line in it, “Learning deeply means learning slowly.” Iyengar yoga is an invitation to learn deeply. Not just of asana, but of oneself.

Holiday Practice – Menstruation

As women, the menstrual cycle provides a pretty reliable reading of the body and mind. To some degree, there is an internal sense of where one is on the cycle simply by virtue of how the body feels. And if one is a practitioner, asanas speak it loudly. Post Covid or mid 40s, I can’t be sure which one or if it is both, my cycles have been mildly irregular and there have been changes. It is a little disconcerting for someone who has been regular as clockwork. Long story short, Day 1 of cycle and it was early but that explained the practice experience yesterday and the day before.

Supine poses, supported forward bends and supported Setuband Sarvangasana was on the menu this evening. Morning saw some supine asanas to relieve discomfort. It also felt appropriate to read through a much-thumbed copy of an essay by Geetaji on the practice of women.

During practice, I also listened to a talk about props by Abhijata from Yoganusasanam 2015. Earlier, I would feel a bit of a missing out when I was menstruating but now it is a welcome relief to stay in supported asanas. I also notice a recalibration of my cycles to the lunar phases every 6 months. I don’t know if there is anything significant about this change but there is a change in creative output every time it is synced to the full moon.

About 7-8 years ago, I got introduced to the idea of practising/ training as per one’s cycle by my then yoga teacher. I used the concept while training for my first half marathon and it became a sort of personal blueprint. I mapped it for a couple of years alongside food intake, sleep and also dominant thought patterns. It was useful to get acquainted with my own being in a methodical way. I no longer maintain the log but the lessons from that endeavour has allowed me to take care of myself as I needed through these years.

I also worked in the space of sustainable menstruation for a few years which opened up a whole universe of challenges. On one hand there was a section of the population that struggled with basic needs of hygiene and sanitation while another grappled with deep rooted gender related anxieties. Across both groups, there were menstrual imbalances. A significant chunk of it could possibly be rectified by simple changes to food and exercise but there was reluctance to change lifestyle habits. While there is a great deal of awareness about the physiological process and the science behind it, we have lost much of traditional sensibility in dealing with a natural phenomenon. There are a few people who ride against the tide but polarization in a digital world is so strong that it is an uphill task to have a reasonable discussion without one side tearing the other down. Like Abhi says, we need to first learn to connect then to communicate, only then can we integrate and there can be union.

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 – Propped

Every once in a long while, I get the rods out and play around with poses I would do during the therapy classes. Back then it was an elaborate setup with 4 steel rods tied with 4 small belts, 4 wooden ones tied with 2 belts and 4 others to keep the legs fused as one. The first asana was always urdhva prasarita padasana. In the big hall, I would be tied to a column but at home, it was simply legs up the wall.

Today I used the steel rods and proceeded to do whatever standing poses and inversions that I could do with straight legs. One of the culminating poses was Niralamba Sarvangasana and it was a whole lot steadier for having the rods. As I type, I think it may be useful to go back and explore a little more. All this while, I only saw it as a prescription for the knees and treated it as such. But that is missing the forest for the trees.

The holidays have settled into a nice rhythm of walks/reading in the morning and practice in the evening. There’s also a re-read of the Kathopanishad happening in the background. The opening valli is a delightful one with the stage being set for the rest of the Upanishad to follow. As an obedient son, Nachiketa finds himself in the presence of the Lord Yama, (Lord of Dharma/ Death). And it got me thinking about the trait of obedience. It used to be a much desired trait in the young people or students/ seekers. These days, not so much. And I see how each era needs its own interpretation of old texts to remain relevant.

The evening routine is one I look forward to and these entries too. Actually, there is a yoga practitioner to thank for getting roused out of my blogging hiatus. If it were not for their enthusiasm, I would have remained in hibernation. Somewhere I forgot the reason why I started this web notebook. It is both a linear journey as well as a circular one. There is a starting point on the linear one but at some point there is movement along the circumference of living where there is no end or beginning.

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 – Sirsasana

Sirsasana and I have a very strange relationship. In my early days, I thought the pose was beyond my reach with a cervical issue. But then, it happened. And since then, it has been a tense relationship. I make progress and then have pause before restarting. Some days, it is effortless but most days, it is a struggle. I cannot stay for too long before the neck groans. This despite the constant ‘lift your shoulders’ refrain running in my head.

I need the grounding of standing poses and a lot of dorsal work before getting into a Sirsasana that I can hold for a reasonable period and if latest observations are taken into account, a fair bit of bound poses. I’ve been able to balance independently, get into multiple variations as well as lift into the pose with both legs straight yet there is no consistency in my mind about the pose. Every time, it is a wondering.

So, today was a Sirsasana practice. Short attempts, multiple attempts to learn, to fight that doubt and fear. The diagnosis was clear, more Sarvangasana. As I get older, I feel the loss of that grip in the body, a certain bewildered loosening. It is part of the ageing process and some days, it is more evident than others. The outsides don’t show it as much as the insides feel it. Hips, they age quicker, I think.

On one hand, there is a certain resignation but on the other, there is a fighting back, not against the decay of the body but the giving up of the mind. It is easy to slide. So, we get back, try different approaches, quite like trying to climb an inaccessible mountain. Nothing is lost, no attempt is futile as each brings its own revealing. What do I gain from this seemingly body centric practice? Perhaps a period of time completely engaged in a pursuit with no distraction. For that time, the constant chatter in the mind is channeled into absorption in the asana. While yoga is defined as chitta vritti nirodhaha, it is pertinent that atha yoganushasanam comes before the definition. In that sense, it is a constant beginning. Every. Single. Time.

Notes

Uttanasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana, Tadasana, Sirsasasana, Urdhva Prasarita Ekpadasana, Ek pada Sirsasana forward, Parighasana, Ek pad Sirsasana sideways, Bharadwajasana, Sarvangasana and variations, Savasana