As of now

It’s been a little over seven years since a tiny spark was lit in a neighbourhood yoga class. The trajectory of my journey within the confines of a 2 X 6 mat since then has been both wide and deep and yet peripheral. Like many others, I came to yoga because of physical pain and discovered how it could be relieved and then stuck around as I gained energy and health. There was a rapid ramping up as I shot through a year of beginners classes to intermediate ones. Running fed my yoga and vice versa. I was still a runner first.

Then came injury and a long period of passive practice, quietly allowing the body to heal even as the mind and heart were crumbling. It led to a complete surrender to my teachers who generously knit me back with incredible compassion. That was the springboard into re-entering a world of independent asanas and slowly finding myself where I am. This is a space of patience, compassion and joy. Ordinary living but singularly extraordinary when considered in the light of my previous experiences. I never thought it would change me this fundamentally.

And now again there is another turn in the wheel as I learn to navigate using asana and pranayama as a means to enquire, to explore and accommodate the vagaries of bodily changes due to degeneration. Unlike the sense of loss I felt when running became unavailable, there is firm faith in yoga as a practice.

I spend a little time at the library as I sort through old files and papers. In the course of that exercise, I stumble upon writings by and about Guruji, Geetaji and Prashantji. I look at photographs and notes from decades ago and marvel at the incredible genius of one simple man who became a light for so many millions around the world. I look at pictures from LOY and compare them with his later images and see how much his already beautiful poses from that seminal work changed in the intervening years. That teaches me to keep flowing, keep learning.

And yet, I’m a little fatigued by the online format at times and also realize that I’ve come to depend too much on the luxury of props. So this month’s effort is to revert to the ‘first prop’, my own body. Last week, I met some old faces while clearing up stuff and it felt really good to see them in the flesh and blood as opposed to little thumbnails on my screen. There was a lot of catching up and it was good to exchange notes on challenges in practice. As I listened to the old-timers speak, I realized they all struggled with their own physical and mental challenges. As a student, I only saw their proficiency in asanas.

I reflect and write about yoga almost everyday and yet there is a reluctance to share it. Maybe it is a natural change where there is more of a need to stay with reflections rather than simply put them out as and when they occur.

Somewhere along the line, the asanas started to look better but I see them as a continuum. Every time I am in class, I am a beginner again. I struggle, lose balance and see the disparities. During demo, I feel responsible to stay and hold a good pose. The experience of demonstrating is very different from practice or being a student. It is more performative. So, I exert will and stay.

Standing poses are largely stable while forward extensions have improved. Twists have always been easy but now they are softer. Inversions have seen a setback as the neck and eye have been acting up while balancings are a continuing challenge. Backward extensions are a moving average. I’ve not really felt the need to document the newer actions as the body’s intelligence has learned to make more efficient notes.

Through the more refined actions we learn, I see how they would apply in therapy. More a matter of principles rather than a prescriptive sequencing. The key is in listening, in looking without fear, without judgement. And remembering the first of the yamas, ahimsa. First, do no harm. Chronic pain can be frustrating and I’ve seen how there can be violence in thought towards that hurting part. And yet what is most needed is what is most often ignored. Non-violence, allowing the shot nerves to come to rest. Taking the time to allow necessary nutrients of the body, heart and spirit to be replenished.

I look at the teachers and see how their teaching has been different as their life stages change. Right from someone in their 30s all the way to a 70+ years old teacher, the zeal remains although the expression of yoga in their lives is different. It reinforces my belief and faith that regardless of my physical condition, the practice of yoga will always be available as long as I seek it. The form may differ, it may not be so much about chasing advanced actions in asanas as it is about doing what is available, fully and wholly. Living with purpose.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of yoga literature thanks to the library stint, a couple of chance buys, a few books I received as well as the ones I already had with me. As always, it is fresh every single time.

Reflection on Yama

A conversation earlier in the day made me think of how the foremost precept in medicine or yoga is ‘Do no harm’. It also ties in with the first of the great vows.

I finished reading the yamas in the book (Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali) and have been reflecting on their mahavrata nature. It has been some time since I sat with different sets of contemplation, like vrittis or kleshas etc. Coming around to it now, it strikes me how different this reading has been. Repetition and a consciousness of these ideas have seeped through the mind over the years and let understanding evolve differently- almost as a gentle undercurrent, not seen but felt both deeper and wider. Moral dilemmas and ethical concerns now start to be examined with consideration and not in absolute terms. There is clarity at the existing level while also a consciousness of a subtler layer that would need a different application. 

Yamas are commonly regarded as restraints, injunctions or observances. But the sutra says these are ‘sarvabhauma mahavratam’, universal great vows. Implicit in its resounding sureness is its absolute nature, the highest standard. In the order of the sutras, yama and niyama are placed before asana and pranayama, yet we always begin at asana. We begin where we are, how we are. It doesn’t matter if one is returning after a long gap or is a complete novice. It has been one of the most beautiful aspects of yoga and Iyengar yoga in particular. It reminds me of artists who painstakingly create sand sculptures on a beach, fully aware that a wave will wash over it and there will be nothing left. What if we could be both artist and sculpture, fully devoted to making our lives as beautiful in a spirit of service with the full awareness of our transience? What if we could truly embrace aparigraha? This last one has caught my attention this time as the book invites considering why the phala of this particular yama is a knowledge of one’s past and future lives.

In one of his classes last week, Prashantji mentioned that “the embodiment is like a text book” and that like textbooks which are read repeatedly, one needs to learn to read one’s own embodiment. The yamas speak differently now, a little less rigidly despite their almost thunderous injunction of non-negotiability. If there is one thing this pandemic has taught us, it has been that we never know another completely and so do not have the context of their choices. 

These have been days of reflection, mulling over the question of how best do I apply the principles of ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha in my life. There are no easy answers for the likes of me, caught in the spin of everyday living. At best, it is a thin watered down version of what Sage Patanjali might have had in mind. The more I read, the more I realize how woefully insufficient it is to rely on translations alone. One needs to understand the language in which it was written, the health of our embodiments before considering yog. No wonder the need for the trifecta of treatises on grammar, medicine and yoga. No wonder the need to invoke samarthyam like Srineet mentioned in one of his classes. Ability and a worthiness, both of which the likes of us have to develop over a long, uninterrupted abhyas. Sometimes, it does feel like seeing through a kaleidoscope, the tumble of pieces throwing a different kind of connective pattern every single time.

Endless the possibilities.

Limitless

Prashantji’s classes are like an arc. It’s not a class in the sense that one is used to but more in the nature of a tasting followed by long cooking of precepts and principles. Asana time is barely half an hour in a 120 minute session but it is not easy by any means. And yet, the few asanas that I experienced were an unfolding. Despite no sequencing, no ‘warm up’ or staccato instructions of skeleton-muscular adjustments, there was a quietness and longevity of asanas by skilful use of breath and mind. I also see why some years need to pass to be able to develop sensitivity or perhaps I am simply slow to grasp.  

During one of the sessions, he spoke about practising in such a way today that we can practice in the future too. It resonated quite loudly with me. Just a few days ago, I was thinking about how I spent over 2 years in therapy class for my knees. All I did was mostly prone or supine asanas which eventually made it possible for me to be pain free and walk long, sit cross legged etc. It also prepared me for loss and losing, age and ageing and most of all to treat all of life as a preparation for dying well.

On the very first day of the session, he asked us to consider what the basics of Iyengar yoga meant. The first thought that sprung up was that it was to “live happily and die majestically” as Guruji said. Most of us are conditioned to say alignment, precision, sequencing but those are simply the starting point or building blocks. The magic starts when you deconstruct the ‘rules’, break them and start teaching yourself, learning yourself. Yoga is heuristic after all. After a period of time, there is an intuitive intelligence of the embodiment that adjusts organically if you can get the rigidity of the mind’s conditioning out of the way.  

Today’s session was a continuation of what may be viewed as a weaving of the ‘Strands of Body, Mind and Breath’. I couldn’t help but think of the strands of sattva, rajas and tamas through the very life force of the universe. Both- limitless. These sessions are like a tasting, an invitation to sip and make mental notes and bodily imprints. The class today was a kind of opening into understanding the intense transformational period many months ago. I have tasted the biochemistry of asanas although I do not know the hows and whys of it.

Prashantji began the class talking about exploring the chemical changes of asanas and how to approach them. The more time I spend as a practitioner of yoga (and I don’t mean asana alone, it also includes other sadhanas outside of the mat), the more comfortable I get with staying with not knowing. It allows for a receiving which is given as a benediction. This week has been fascinating and I’m looking forward to going back to the basics yet again and seeing them through a different lens. Somewhere, the desire for asana proficiency has been replaced by asana curiosity and in the bargain, I’ve begun to see the limitlessness despite our constraints. As a runner, I had too much to lose and then I lost it. As a yoga practitioner, even if I lose everything, there will still be Savasana as long as there is breath in the body.  

Last week in one of my regular classes, we approached malasana through different routes and it was again that same touch of limitlessness. Malasana is a beautiful pose, named after the garland it resembles. Floral garlands are an intrinsic part of Indian rituals and traditions, from weddings to pujas to inaugurations and felicitations. In traditional Indian weddings, there is an exchange of var malas. The garlands themselves range from simple to elaborate ones but their place in the ceremony remains similar. The act of garlanding is a mutual one, a receiving as well as a giving. Old stories speak about swayamvara where a woman chose her partner and indicated her choice by garlanding the suitor. Now, the exchange is a mutual one signifying acceptance of each other as life partners.

Taking possession of a new vehicle is often accompanied by the breaking of a coconut and a garland on the car. Deities are worshipped with malas, usually of flowers said to be dear to them. The entrance of houses are decorated with torans, especially during festivals and special guests are honoured with a flower garland.

In a way, the act of garlanding is a deeply mindful one of acknowledging the other and their part in our lives. In order to complete the circuit, there’s also a corresponding receiving of the offering. I suppose it is simply mimicking the endless cycles in nature, a continuous reciprocal acting. That class had malasana and its different scents through various forward extensions. While there is a certain proficiency in some of the asanas at a beginner level, there is also the awareness that asana practice is a continuum. As I stretch and find resistance in the body or unwillingness, I see corresponding holding back of the mind. I see how the breath and thought process in those situations are similar in life off the mat. There is acknowledgement of working within the constraints of bodily limitations and walking the tightrope of pushing forward and holding back. It’s interesting to see how some ‘difficult’ asanas are easier than the easy ones, the continuum of practice is a shifting one.

The beauty of this art is that there is never an end to its learning and discovering the limitlessness of the embodiment’s capability. Body, mind and consciousness stretching into infinity or compressing into nothingness. Both exist simultaneously. In the final malasana of that morning, there was an experience of that garlanding, equal parts giving and receiving. One of the shifts that has happened has been a receiving of where I am right now, whether capability or capacity. An ‘all is well’ regardless of the challenges that have been cropping up and they have been many and unrelenting. There has been displacement of routine thanks to some crazy amount of time on the road but despite that, I’ve managed to unroll my mat and join the sessions. One of the blessings of a pandemic has been access to classes regardless of where one might be.

Hitting the right note

One of the things I love about this system of yogasanas is the use of analogies. They are liberally borrowed from music, nature, modern gadgets, food etc. Most of the similes do the job of conveying actions perfectly making instructions of ‘move this part or that’ almost unnecessary. Having the imagery of a raptor spreading its wings does more for a vimanasana than any instruction does in understanding the elegance in the extension and expansion of the pose.

The third pada talks about the siddhis, two of which are garima and laghima. Asanas are a place to experience that power as well, a teaser in a manner of speaking. For instance, how the action of the shoulder blades can create density and stability of the legs or how extension of the upper hand gives lightness in Trikonasana. A few days ago I read a biography of Ustad Vilayat Khan and also watched a documentary on Coltrane. Both maestros whose music had similar siddhi like powers – the lightest touch to the deepest somberness. As musicians, they spent their lives in tune with their instruments so much so that they sang through them. They didn’t need an external tuning equipment, that’s how much they were one with it. Their mastery transported not just them but all those who listened to their music.

This week has been a parivritta trikonasana concert and it was exhilarating. It is usually a pose where my weak knee gets annoyed but this exploration was one of length and breadth, free breath and effortless twisting. And it led to a stable and sustained parsva sirsasana. I was reminded of some impossible turning from last year and heard an echo of my teacher’s voice saying ‘make the back finer‘. I do miss the touch of adjustments that give a sharp push ahead but this learning is one where the earnings are from within the body’s deep intelligence. I find that I don’t want to ask questions or search for their answers elsewhere but within the boundaries of my skin. And staying with not knowing has allowed the body’s voice to be heard.

The single minded dedication of many hours , everyday for years may not be possible for the likes of us but even within the limited constraints of time available, it is evident how a little work over a long time develops refinement. The initial years are simply a lot of sweat and frustration like learning to write as a child in between lines but eventually, it becomes easier. I often find myself wandering between the quiet forests of yoga and writing, not quite sure which one is my home. The latter has been a longstanding sadhana since childhood but completely unguided. It has been an absorbed practice through reading and reflection, letting the words write themselves with my hands as the instrument. The words only flow through me, they come from elsewhere. Yoga though has been a systematic unfolding of a science, an art and a philosophy through the legacy of a giant, beautifully transmitted by his students. I find that both feed each other with the greater gain being one received from yoga. It enriches itself as well as the practice of words. Prose, pose and repose.

Yoga is the art of living

The thought for October reads, Yoga is the art of living. As I mentioned in the last post, the more I stay with these monthly contemplations, it becomes increasingly evident how difficult the simple statements are. As the month commenced, it also struck me how thoughtfully the thoughts were arranged in a progression through the months. Before I looked at next month’s thought, I was musing over how the art of living is one of integration which is nothing but karma yoga. And as Krishna says, action without the expectations of its fruits, abhyasa and vairagya are the twin heartbeats of a seeker. I took the calendar down and listed down all the statements and I see how their sequencing is a bit like sequencing in asanas and the teaching of the same.

December   2018 – Yoga is being eternally contemporary

January 2019 – Yoga is awareness

February 2019 – Yoga is purity

March 2019 – Yoga is sensitivity

April 2019 – Yoga is equanimity

May 2019 – Yoga is harmony

June 2019 – Yoga is deconditioning

July 2019 – Yoga is experiencing innocence

August 2019 – Yoga is compassion

September 2019 – Yoga is integration

October 2019 – Yoga is the art of living

November 2019 – Yoga is action

December 2019 – Yoga is to surrender

Yoga as the art of living is really an invitation to be alive. It us an invitation to fully inhabit our embodiment. In the foreword to Light on Yoga, Menuhin talks about it being each and every time a living act. That little opening is a favourite and one I’ve read so many times that it comes unbidden. What does it mean to live? What does it mean to live as a human being? I suppose these are questions that are continuously answered every single moment as we range the spectrum of tendencies from divine to demonic. At day’s end, when I reflect on the activities, actions, words and thoughts, I often notice how things could be handled better. Increasingly, I also notice how I’ve learned to respond differently although it is easy to slip into the unthinking comfort of habit.

The last couple of practice sessions were frustrating and I realized that I had crept towards outcome and not effort. It’s also a gentle reminder that a post 40 body is different. As a woman, there are the monthly ebbs and flows of menstruation along with the ageing that begins to accelerate. Add existing injury or degeneration and the mix is one that needs a balanced handling. Not too little, not too much but always pushing the edge of possibility. I suppose when I think about the art of living, it is really the art of effortless effort, prayatna shaithilyatha. One of my teachers used a lovely analogy in Uttanasana. He asked us to imagine Thakur (from Sholay) doing the pose. (Thakur doesn’t have hands) Often, we tug and pull to reach the chin to the shin but the elegance of the body dropping in surrender to the ground is a beauty to watch as well as experience. There is no attachment, simply a surrender. As I type, I again see how the thoughts of the months have been so beautifully linked like a sutra.

Integration to the art of living to action to surrender.

Integer -Integration

September comes to an end and with it another month of rumination, this time on Integration. At different levels, there is integration, within one’s singularity, with another and then a world at large. I. You. We. Nature however rearranges grammatical hierarchy by starting with we and then trickling down to the I. Natural ecosystems are a beautiful expression of integration. The animate and inanimate coming together to create, sustain and destroy. When that balance is lost, there is depletion and desolation but left to itself, there is a beautiful symphony of a constantly evolving integration which is complete. I suppose we’ve crossed a tipping point in that respect but nevertheless there is hope that a universe that has managed to be around for so long has a few ways and means to ensure continuity of this tiny little blue speck.

At a very primal level, we see ecosystems, constantly adapting, evolving. We humans have created another well entrenched ecosystem of technology which is also constantly learning and getting smarter. It is in the nature of things in the universe, to expand and contract, grow and decay and this entire cycle of creation, sustenance and destruction is a beautiful expression of the concept.

In class, in practice, we work on small sections of the body to bring awareness, wakefulness and wholeness. Over a period of time, many little parts start finding their wholeness and eventually they come together to make a complete asana. Body, mind and breath come together in the repose of a pose, each time a whole but also an evolving whole. Lately, the work we do and what I try to practise is to bring the softness, quietness or calm that my teacher talks about alongside the firmness. It is harder to be soft than to hold firm but when both come together there is a different combustion. As far as the breath is concerned, the inhalation is whole in itself as is the exhalation and the retention. All three come together in one integrated breath. The mind with its tendencies and colour extend into the way we think, speak and act.

But yoga is more than just grunt work on a mat, it is a way of being in the world but not necessarily of it, as seen in its 8 petals. In an earlier time, there was conflict in my mind between being in the world and being not of it and so there was confusion at seemingly contradictory aspects of living. There was rigidity and a closed mindedness, a hardness which reflected in the body’s inability to completely let go. Perhaps that’s also why I steered away from pranayama until now. It’s taken me 6 years and a pandemic to take tentative steps into preparing for it.

It hasn’t been too difficult to see yoga in my everyday whether in the effortless flight of the black kites from my balcony floor or the words in a lovely book. I started to see how the different interests and time spent were not in conflict with being a student of yoga and in fact they added a richness to it. Some time ago, I settled on 3 questions to ask myself when confronted with a choice.

Is it true?

Is it good?

Is it beautiful?

Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram. Sometimes there are variations on this depending on the context. I didn’t figure out then that it was a process of integration. Again seen through asana eyes, I can ask myself if the pose is true, if it is good and if it is beautiful. Does it have Rupa, Lavanya and Balam? And the only answer that matters is the one that comes up from deep within my own heart.

I just finished a lovely book called Braiding Sweetgrass. It was a slow savouring and not the usual mad gobbling of words. The pages have been heavily highlighted, thankfully it was a kindle read and so no actual pages were mutilated. Leaving a couple of sentences from the book here.

Native scholar Greg Cajete has written that in indigenous ways of knowing, we understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion and spirit.

– Robin W Kimmerer

Towards the end the author says,

‘The spark itself is a mystery, but we know that before that fire can be lit, we have to gather the tinder, the thoughts, and the practices that will nurture the flame.’

– Robin W Kimmerer

While this exercise began as a simple way to stay with a thought, over the months I have begun to see how difficult it is to truly understand. The reading for the month has been the Kenopanishad, a wonderful short few chapters on knowing. It’s uncanny how lessons in life have a way of rearranging themselves to bring you an integrated understanding. It’s no surprise for an integrated universe but for the likes of me, it still remains a bit magical.

Perceiving the teacher

I’ve been attending classes with multiple teachers thanks to the online format, each of them bringing a distinctive flavour. If I had to break it down into what makes them dynamically different while staying true to this system of yogasana, it might be broadly categorized into Goal, Approach and Language. It appears that these three are also closely linked to their own studentship and relationship with their primary teachers. Some of the teachers clearly were mentored by Guruji, others by Geetaji. It seems as though their own personalities were taught the way they would best receive and that is the underlying current of this river of Iyengar yoga, the alignment between teacher and student.

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The hall at RIMYI seems like a very distant destination now.

While I miss a physical class for the opportunity to see other bodies and observe how the teachers adjust or watch, online classes have provided a peek into their own learning without the distraction of a hall full of people. There is more of the teacher to absorb. In this format, the field of practice has moved from a hall to one’s own self and observation depends as much on the spoken word as on the visual representation. The mind is a marvelous thing, constantly scanning, absorbing, arranging, rearranging, assimilating, discarding bits of information from various sources and integrating them. I find that a book about plants or watching birds teaches me yoga as much as time on the mat does, both in the physical expression of asana as well as in the way to go about the business of living.

The online medium shows the teacher or demonstrator and often just listening to the audio is sufficient. I access the lessons on my phone so the screen is really tiny magnifying the importance of the economy and efficiency of speech. One of the teachers epitomizes austerity, a refinement mindset and a sense of craftsmanship. Another teacher is about the hard work of body to develop sensitivity and I see Geetaji’s presence in the keenness of that delivery. Yet another is more relatable to us students with our mridu mind and encourages an endurance mindset, devotion to Guruji being foremost while a fourth makes sure we remain in touch with all the asanas. The differences in both the goals and approaches are at a peripheral level, the basic one still remains to enable us to experience the asana in its totality. Each of the teachers wield language in distinct ways and that is a separate post in itself. Some of the analogies are invoke such powerful visual imagery that they guide the asana effortlessly. And of course the regional Marathi that is sprinkled in adds a delicious flavour by recalling uniquely Indian experiences. How would yoga be taught in the absence of language?

In the context of my own learning, I find there are times I veer towards one and at others towards the others. The approach of a female teacher and a male teacher is distinct, while another layer is of personality and interests. But despite apparent colourings of gender and personality there flows a single river of Iyengar yoga. The difficulties of their practice and its resolution comes out in the way they instruct. A nuanced, finer touch, almost austere versus an earthy one that is empathetic towards human frailty. One, a seeking to go beyond prayatna shaithilyatha in order to begin yoga and the other to develop a joy for endeavour. Of course, this is purely a personal perspective as a student and I could be way off the mark. But, it is interesting nonetheless as it helps me look at how I study, not just asana but also other things that I am interested in. It helps me observe better, open my mind a little more and be adventurous.

September’s meditation is “Yoga is integration” and this has been a good way to begin the month, to see how learning is an integration of not just the teacher’s teaching but also the teacher’s learning that a student is privileged to receive.

Synesthesia of learning?

I find that in self-study of any sort, not just asana, the process of learning is largely invisible and in small packets spread over a period of time and across different spaces of our lives. They remain scattered until the body and mind are prepared to synthesize all of it into an organic whole.

The month of May threw up small pieces that spoke of space and harmony. One of the first was an article in the Yoga Rahasya on Symmetry and Space (Vol. 24, No.4 , 2017). Another was the view from my balcony floor while lying down and looking at the sky. Yet another was the toiling that happened on my mat and the reading that would come after. A large chunk also lay in the outdoors with the trees, stones, birds, flowers and so on and an interesting bit was in a colouring sheet my daughter made me fill up.

Last evening, towards the end of my practice, I came to Karnapidasana and it was a whole different experience. I tend to be wary of the pose because of pressure on the neck. Last night though, the pose was effortless and I experienced a shutting down of the ears and an opening of my eyes. Not like the opening of the eyes in backbends but almost as though there was an inner set of eyes that opened. A seeing without seeing and time didn’t exist. Maybe that’s what made it feel like I could stay in the pose forever. Despite the compressed nature of the asana, it didn’t feel that way at all.

After practice, I looked the asana up in books and on the internet to see if there was anything other than the technique or benefits of the asana. Geetaji’s Gem For Women mentions that it makes one turn inward but beyond that I wasn’t able to find anything. But, the pose caught my attention for its association with the ear, the word ‘pida’ and the theme of space which was running through the days. And this morning, I worked with a slightly different set of asanas before attempting Karnapidasana again. This time there was resistance. I was trying to replicate yesterday’s lesson without being open to what today wanted to teach.

The sensation yesterday reminded me of an experience a few years ago when I saw sound, not the form of it. Synesthesia, a fleeting experience in savasana. I wonder what is the connection between the ears and eyes? Is there one or am I imagining it? Is it stubbornness to want to connect the dots that appear through moments in life and make sense? I don’t know. But the theme of space and all the words that tie in with space, be it sound or silence have been cropping everywhere. In asana, we are taught to create space in the body. The skies rest in space, the stars and the moon too. It has been contemplative sorts of days lately, one of being brutally honest with myself, breaking patterns, facing fears. This is different compared to earlier when the process worked from body to mind a few months ago.

Sharing a few lines from the same Yoga Rahasya mentioned earlier

With asanas come penetration

With penetration comes sensitivity

With sensitivity comes intelligence

With intelligence comes wisdom

With wisdom comes harmony

With harmony comes stillness.

Destruction

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you would’ve been privy to the months of a dark night of the soul. I was incapable of maintaining any but the bare minimum to get through my days. While I anticipated a rough ride, nothing could have prepared me for the enormity of grief. Mostly, it sprung from a deep sense of loss. Over time, we become attached to our habits, people, places until they become dead weight. But by then, we’ve invested too much time, effort and ourselves to be able to hit the reset button. So, we carry on, accumulating diseases of the body, mind and heart until it chokes us.

We are taught to create, grow, sustain but never how to destroy. And that too is an essential part of the cycle of life. Birth, growth, decay, death and rebirth. We see it in nature, in the way seasons die out to receive the next one, in the way day ends in night, in the way the hunted becomes food for the predator and so on. But we live our human lives averse to the creative potential of destruction. We embrace the joyful and exciting but not the pain and despair but that too is such an essential part of being human, the capacity to embrace pain as we do pleasure.

I see a mirror in the current pandemic, the laying waste of a way of life, flawed though it be. Much pain, horror, hardship, death and desolation cutting across geographies and people. These are difficult times, no doubt, but I also believe in the resilience of our species which will pick up the pieces and rebuild. In the course of volunteering as well as in my work, I hear experts talk about various future scenarios, usually through the lens of their specific domains. While there’s a great deal of information available and conversation that happens on current issues, truth is no one really knows and we have an inbuilt fear of uncertainty. In Light on Life, Guruji mentions, “learning to live with uncertainty is the great art of living” and that couldn’t be more apt in these times of anxiety and fear.

In such a world, how does yoga help? I can only speak for myself when I say it keeps my life in the right proportion. Yoga practice becomes the Serenity Prayer in action. On the mat, my presence remains confined to the time spent on it, working with acceptance, change and discrimination. As my body takes the forms of poses, I find a suspension of my roles and concerns of the world at large and the attempt to find integration of mind, body and breath.  Later, I think about how can one bring that same cohesion to our individual problems and collective ones? And I find myself drifting back to my favourite sutra, 1.33, as the healing a wounded species so desperately needs.

Yog Sutra 1.33 – “Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy, and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favourably disposed, serene and benevolent.” – Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by B K S Iyengar

 

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and in the midst of all else in the world, there is a riot of summer flowers…

Yoga in times of Corona

It’s been a while since I posted here and much has changed in the world. In the little corner of the world I call home, school children remain out of school, streets are deserted and life is at a standstill. Yesterday was a day-long curfew and all we heard was birdsong. It might seem like an idyllic summer holiday but times are scary. While the official numbers seem tiny, reality is that we are a country of over a billion people and there is nothing to do but brace for impact. The aftermath is something one doesn’t even want to consider.

Classes came to a halt, work too and even the solitary volunteer work in an empty building had to be abandoned. Through all this, there has been an increased sense of urgency to find my practice. The silver lining in all the uncertainty has been leisurely hours on the mat, sometimes twice a day to play, study, work and watch. It’s still very much grunt work considering that it’s only been a few months since a regular class. And the quirks of a not so young body mean listening to it and modifying as one goes. Do I miss class? Yes. But there’s a difference now, the dependence on the place is not there.

Yoga has given me the confidence and wings to be able to continue learning even in the absence of the beloved institute and teachers. I feel like a bird that has been pushed out of the nest and discovered that it knows to fly. And that is a freedom. I’ll always be a student but now I also feel like I’ve moved grades. Today, my teacher texted me something about myself and the reply I got was, “glad with your response”. In the reticent world of Iyengar yoga especially at the institute, it is unusual to receive such. While it feels good, I also accept it without having to give it the place of validation. I’m glad for the detachment of the teachers that keeps one striving.

In textual study, I’ve been on Chapter 15 of the Gita and I’m still circling the first 4 verses with its imagery of the ASHWATTHA tree, reminiscent of the Kathopanishad mantra (Section 6, Mantra 1). Somehow, as always, whenever attention has been drawn to a shloka, relevant pieces appear along the way. In this case, a recent read by an environmentalist (Hinduism and Nature by Nanditha Krishna) who has provided some references to the same tree. I also encountered a sapling planted on the trails I would frequent. An old couple that walks their gorgeous dogs nurture that young plant.

Part of the commentary by Swami Chinmayananda brings alive the imagery beautifully.

The subtle Principle of Life manifests through us, in different planes and in a variety of forms – as perceptions of the body; as emotions and feelings of the mind, as ideals and thoughts of the intellect; and as mere non-apprehension of the causal-body All these vehicles and their experiences, manifesting in the Infinite Life, in their totality, constitute the Ashwattha tree spreading out into all quarters.

In the context of our times, our entire planet is like one giant Ashwattha tree and the detachment the Blue God calls for may only be the way through.