Month’s end and year’s close

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

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

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

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

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

On the shoulders of giants

Guruji was a force, whose presence breathed energy into those he came in contact with. He lived and taught in a time when yoga was not a multi billion dollar industry. Almost a century after his life, yoga is ubiquitous and there is more than enough information about asanas, anatomy and physiology, pranayama, philosophy etc. that is widely available. It is a mass product and packaged as such. In the context of these times, his teachings blaze even brighter through the legacy of those who lived and learned directly from him. Yoga beyond asana and pranayama, what Prashantji speaks of as essential yog or classical yog.

We are lucky to live in this millennium when such wisdom is also available for those who may be so inclined. I remember an event at the institute when he shared an incident from his life. As students of teachers who have been with Guruji over decades and especially in his last years, there is a rich, distilled ocean of wisdom and we benefit from that generosity. His sadhana was one of such rigour and tenacity that it paved an easier way for us. In the course of sifting through material, I look at pictures of Guruji in various moments of his life and am struck by his incredible joy, sheer elegance and artistry, softness and vitality. Truly a giant.

Sunday School

Sunday evening marks the beginning of the week’s yoga lessons. Inevitably, after it is over, I remain in a ‘zone’ for the lack of a better word. Each session is an ocean while I splash in the kiddie pool of the class. The students that make up this group are practitioners since decades and attuned to the teacher in a way that I probably will never be. But, in the weird trajectory of my yoga learning, here I am. For those who have watched the movie 3 Idiots, the character of the child Rancho probably echoes my situation, slipping in and out of classrooms that he doesn’t quite belong in. It is the same for me but I couldn’t be more content. It does feel that all my learning is more an absorption rather than active learning, closer to a child’s process rather than an adult’s.

This year has been one of coming to a commitment through a process of elimination. At the start of 2022, it did feel like I was turning a very wide bend and at year’s close, that sense is validated. I can see a little beyond it. Recently, I made the acquaintance of a fellow practitioner, S. She has been a devoted student of Guruji and Geetaji and now shines the light of their teachings in her country, As we worked together and shared our stories, I was inspired by her life and living. Her life story is simply incredible. She seemed to be able to see ahead into my life more than I could even imagine. I don’t think too much about the future as the uncertainty of my living situation has been the only constant since the last few years. It is a space I am comfortable in and my life is mostly just about the day. It is familiar territory.

But today morning, I came across two separate pieces of writing, both reflections of giants in their own chosen disciplines. I found myself affirming a commitment that was always there but never articulated to myself. S was the catalyst and the subsequent readings inspired me to make a decision for myself despite the self-doubt and sense of insufficiency. And in the mysterious ways of the cosmos, life acknowledged it, almost immediately. The path seems to have chosen itself. How it unfolds, only time will tell.

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