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.

“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 – Backbend preps

Somehow through these days, the asanas that have come up have been inspired by fauna. But maybe that could also be because of the sheer number of asanas that take shapes of various animals, birds and insects.

Backbends sort of took a backseat with the heatwave conditions we’ve been having the last few weeks. But, the monsoons will soon be here, there are stirrings of those winds. Most mornings I am woken rather early  by the common hawk cuckoo or koels frantically calling. Almost as though they want to hurry up their summer passions before it is time to withdraw. I digress.

Back to backbends, today was prep work with shoulder and sternum opening followed by Salabhasana, Bhujangasana, Dhanurasana and Ek pada Rajkapotasana prep. It was rusty from the word go but the joints and spine feel good. Perhaps, I’ll continue with some supported backbends tomorrow.  

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 – 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

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.

Hybrid

​After almost 2 years, I was in the big hall again. This time with a few teachers as part of a pilot project on hybrid yoga classes. It was simply wonderful to be back in the hall, same and yet different. Zoom has become so much a part of the way yoga classes are conducted that most of us present also did the thumbs up to acknowledge comprehension. It was cute. There is some unlearning as well as some new learning in the way this moves forward.

All these days, classes were in a capsule, the energy that of the household or space where one practised. Zoom yoga is a very silent activity as there is only the teacher’s voice and the odd person asking for clarification. In the hall, there is movement and sounds of props, chatter as practitioners exchange thoughts or help each other. There is a larger space where you move to a wall or column or grill. At home, it is a tight dance around available space. Today, we chanted the invocation together loudly. At home, I often chant it silently with the teacher but it was good to feel my voice as part of the other voices. Another change, not the usual call and response but a chanting together in the interest of those attending remotely.

Although it was a class, it felt like practice. Perhaps, it was a remnant from the class the previous evening which was a silent one with no instructions but an opening that invited us to consider what it meant to be human, what it meant to be alive. My teacher touched briefly upon the yamas and the niyamas as well as our being and becomings. I chose to simply stay with the thought of the yamas as we went through the asanas. And simply considering the words- ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha through the cycle of poses led to a very reflective and quiet experience, one that spilled over into today too. The surrender in Uttanasana and Prasarita Padottanasana was very different.

While in the hall today, I found myself at home, at ease unlike before when I wondered what I was doing hanging around in the therapy class. Today as we helped each other learn certain actions, I found myself assisting teachers as we learned together. The previous me would have been horrified about how could I give teachers a hand. The thought didn’t cross my mind this morning. I still can’t do many asanas and am not driven enough to chase poses so probably have no business being there but I love the place and will simply keep showing up as long as they will have me. Another interesting observation was how I was able to consider and measure the extent of action that the teacher asked us to do. Often the repetition of cues would see me overdo because I wasn’t able to process enough to gauge what was the right extent.

The Iyengar yoga system can be compared to any of the old classical disciplines of Indian dance or music or martial arts. Tough, very little validation and a lot of pushing hard. As a beginner, I remember wanting to do the best pose and do everything perfectly. I was willing to push hard and wanted validation that my efforts were correct although I didn’t want to ask for it. So, I made a lot of mistakes but kept asking the questions of myself and over time, they got answered. Injury taught me patience and gave me time to observe. This kind of learning has been slow but quite rich as the lines between asana and life blurred until it simply became a whole system of living.

It is a changed world, this Covid one. In the past two years, the journey on the mat has been a wide one. In sheer asana proficiency, I progressed well till I could do some of the asanas much better than I could pre-pandemic but then had to scale down due to certain conditions. There were also unexpected finds such as asanas that I had never attempted coming very easily. And more recently a complete halt with Covid and a slow finding my way back to an active practice.

Covid Recovery

I had almost 2 weeks of no asana at all when I was recovering from the second bout of Covid. Post that it was a slow re-entry with plenty of supported forward bends gradually moving towards twists and reintroducing the other categories of asanas. During those days, the body simply didn’t want to even consider inversions or backbends or standing poses. They are now available albeit to a much smaller degree but the capacity is definitely increasing. Recovery is an interesting phenomenon whether of body, mind or emotion. I don’t fall sick easily and the odd time that I do, the bounce back is quick. This time around, I still feel like I’m convalescing. It is a different experience to be short of breath and not really trust your body to do certain things.  Each day is a mindful exercise in managing tasks around energy levels. But today, I am happy and thrilled at having been in beloved RIMYI and lying down on the cool floor of the big hall post class. Maybe that powered me through a long day.