Flying shoulder stands and some thoughts

Today’s penultimate pose was a sarvangasana, the lightest, tallest one I have ever inhabited. Our teacher said, fly with your trapezius and we flew. All the ‘shoulder surgery‘ we did in class today made for a sarvangasana that was as wide as it was tall, the trunk felt like an open book. The arms and shoulder promise to make their presence known later but that is sweet pain.

I feel a little out of my depth in the Intermediate class, many of the asanas are a challenge mostly because of the knee. The holds are longer in this class and I still have to attain some strength and endurance. I fall over sometimes and come up sooner. The old tendency to find fault is there but there is a little more patience. It is also fascinating to see how much the body can actually move. In one of the parsva salabhasana variations, my teacher came and pulled my arm so easily and had it cross my back. I struggled with moving it and she made it so long. We have far more in us than we think we have, like in running. This asana learning is an energizing one, continuous and fresh everyday. I attend 2 classes- beginners and intermediate. The experience is so different, one assures that there is some proficiency and the other reminds you that you’re a long ways off. It’s a continuum of being student.

Life off the mat has a different quality now. More clarity, more humour and more acceptance. The inevitable conclusion is joy. Sometimes I wonder if it is a phase, this almost euphoric sense of well-being despite the challenges of living. But, it doesn’t seem that way. Not for now atleast. My eyes are wide open and so is my heart. Setbacks are temporary and experienced in the present and then sent their way.

Yoga and running, both were never quite about the body or fitness for me. Even now, with the struggle of the body, it is really about facing myself, fears, flaws, strengths, potential and being able to see them and know that they have their place. It is about being able to fall flat on my face and being able to laugh about it. I used to take myself too seriously, still do but it’s easier to be around people now. I’ve made new friends and feel like part of the community at the institute.

Evening therapy class was interesting. Raya broke down assisting handstands and rope work. It was interesting to see how each person processed the lessons. Although Iyengar yoga appears to be regimented and rigid in sequencing, I’ve had firsthand experience of not following any of the conventional rules when my teachers would work on me. It is like classical Indian music, once there is a certain maturity, the rules can be bent to suit a conscious purpose. The lovely performances are often improvised but this is mastery level and beyond.

As for me, I found myself wondering what right do I have looking at this when I can’t yet do a handstand by myself. I’m probably the only one in all the helpers/ observers/ teachers who cannot do what I guess are basic requirements for someone to be assisting. Anyways, I listen and observe, knowing that I might not retain much but believe that all that wisdom will come back when I am ready. In the meanwhile, I help where required and that takes me out of my doubt and questioning for that period.

Time

My days have been a whirlwind and sleep is in short supply. Work calls for punishing travel schedules these days and I hustle to ensure that yoga days are sacrosanct. Somehow in all this manic activity, I also find it possible to be present in whatever I am doing. This morning, my daughter and I spent a few minutes catching up before school. I hadn’t seen her all day yesterday and the little morning conversation was leisurely and loving. I could both experience and witness it as such not in retrospect but as it unfolded. I was reminded of the sutra that explores the transcendence of time and gunas (4:33). No claim to any such ability😁

I’m learning to carve out time as opportunity presents itself rather than being fixated on a rigid schedule. It’s a change, the ability to adjust, readjust willingly and without resistance. This has allowed me to fit in a few walks in the woods as well as time to read and write. Most of all, it has removed the weight of expectations, leaving my inner house open to welcome every experience as it arises. Life is lighter and there is more laughter. Often, we students are a serious lot and our teacher lightens our faces and bodies with humorous observations. We forget that laughter is a natural state and perhaps if we could laugh like children, spontaneously, much of the weight in our lives would be lightened.A tiny burst of sunshine on the ground, yellow magic

Class was brilliant as always and I learn as my teacher teaches us and the other teachers. It’s beautiful to watch her do both simultaneously without missing anything. At one point a few years ago, I thought I might want to teach but increasingly I find probably not. I’m content to just be there, help out, learn and explore. I still don’t understand how and why I was asked to come to help. I can’t do so many asanas the others can, simplest of which is a sirsasana in the middle. But, I show up and soak all that is around. And I believe that someday that sirsasana will also happen. It has happened for many others before me. So, I attempt in class with the help of others. That much I can do.

Her Life – His Work

December is always a special month in the Iyengar community with Guruji and Geetaji’s birth anniversaries and now her death anniversary as well. It is a time of memories, sweet, aching, happy and above all loving.

Yesterday, many students and teachers shared their memories of Geetaji, her father’s daughter and a gem amongst women. Listening to some of the sharings, I teared up as the compassion they talked about was also one I experienced first hand from the brilliant teachers she mentored. I found myself going back to this day last year and remembering the utter devastation I felt on hearing of her passing away. In a strange way, I felt motherless and was grief stricken. This despite never knowing her personally.

One striking characteristic of everyone in the Iyengar family is childlike innocence and playfulness. It seems in direct contrast to their fierceness but I’ve only seen compassion shining through when they have been tough. The medical classes are perhaps the best place to see Iyengar yoga in all its generosity of spirit. Thanks to the times we live in, we can hear them and see them again and again.

One of the teachers at the institute shared her memories about Geetaji through a heart choked with emotion and in her words I found echoes of my struggle with practice. The same doubts and sense of ‘never being able to do some stuff’. My journey too has been one of fits and starts and seeming stagnation but I still show up with all my shortcomings simply because I believe that this is the way for me. Most of the senior practitioners who seem unflappable and so strong have also had their share of terrible pain and tragedy. I suppose in a way, Iyengar yoga is for those who have suffered greatly and found no solace elsewhere. It is not an easy path to journey and there are no half measures. As Geetaji was know to say, you have to be willing to die.

On Guruji’s birth anniversary, Abhi took one of his sayings and went on to explore what it meant. “When I practise, I am a philosopher. When I teach, I am a scientist. When I demonstrate, I am an artist.” Seemingly different but when you settle into the ideas expressed, it makes perfect sense. They are not separate but facets of the same practice. I like to think of it as parallel to Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram as well as jnana, karma and bhakti margas respectively. Art as understood in the Indian tradition was always about exalting the divine. A classical musician or dancer spends years of sweat and toil learning the basics and techniques under a guru. The maturing of the artiste makes it possible to then move beyond the science and philosophy of the form to create art. Even Brahma needed to create, it is a natural instinct for self expression and in Guruji’s case, it was an expression of the Self.

My head and heart are full with the words and thoughts left by all those who spoke about their experiences. The beautifully choreographed demonstration by some of the practitioners was a delight to watch and if Geetaji were alive, she would have been happy to see the devotion to Guruji that continues to grow. After his passing, she never lost an opportunity to remind us to be true to his legacy and beyond death, her life continues to inspire thousands to be true to the art, science and philosophy of Ashtanga yog. As Pavithra shared, one cannot really separate Geetaji and Guruji. To speak of one is to remember the other too.

There was much that was spoken and it will take a while to let some of those words seep in, especially Prashantji’s almost insistent words about clues left by Guruji on the brain and heart but I still have to attain readiness to even begin to understand it.

In gratitude for Guruji and Geetaji’s life

The dance of life

A couple of years ago, if someone had to ask me to choose between being steeped in yoga and my normal life, I wouldn’t be able to choose the former. Yet, it was always a dream to fulfill once my responsibilities were over.

And then the last year unraveled in ways I hadn’t imagined. Life threw quite a few curveballs in quick succession and forced a complete destruction of all that I held normal. Every single thing. All the yoga classes over the last few months worked with erasing the vestiges of that limited self, forcing me to confront myself. It’s amazing how much we build around the idea of who we are instead of who we actually are. Deeply flawed and potentially divine.

Destruction happens. It’s always happening in nature when leaves turn yellow and fall, creatures die, lava incinerates and tsunamis wash away many lives. Yet, nature creates, not recreates. Even humans. We say rebuild but it’s actually creating from scratch because the old does not exist any longer. That is consumed by time. The Natraj statue in the library was a beautiful representation of that thought.

The angst has passed, some anxiety remains and I find saying No helps, deciding one way or the other helps. Unless I close the door and walk out into the sunshine, I will never be in the light. It is not the way of the world, to drop back and trust that the ground will receive you. But, it is the way of the sutras, of continuous, dedicated abhyasa and vairagyam.

It reminds me of something I learned early – be careful what you wish for, it just may come true. It certainly appears to be the case now and I’m humbled, grateful and a bit unbelieving of my good fortune to study yoga. Sometimes great things are born of terrible pain.

A day of learning

I had a last minute trip that came up this morning. A cab had been arranged and I had a lovely 45 minute ride listening to one of the wisest persons I have met in recent times.

An unassuming man, he has been a driver for 42 years, doing almost daily runs on the Mumbai-Pune highway, first as a trucker and then a taxi driver. The road was his teacher. His words, not mine. “Even people who don’t talk teach me much.”

Once a month, he and his wife go someplace, usually to a temple somewhere out of town and come back recharged. He has a guru in his village who he holds in high respect. He reminded me of Nisargadatta Maharaj, a common man who was an enlightened soul. This man is a warkari, he used to do the annual pilgrimage for many years and listened to stories from fellow travellers. Stories about ancient sages and enlightened masters. One of the things he was told as a young man was to undertake pilgrimages while health still permitted so that he wouldn’t need to burden another.

We spoke through the rear view mirror, his deep set eyes a pool of calm radiance. He’s driven many business leaders, politicians and had much knowledge about human nature, different kinds of businesses and nothing to lose. A karma yogi of the finest mettle. A completely irrelevant tidbit but fascinating piece of information was that the colourful tutti-frutti was made of papaya!

One of the interesting things I have observed in my life is how reflective mornings fade into an intellectual workday. I saw it happening with him as well as we moved from a dialogue on matters related to the spirit to a conversation on sundry life matters. His mastery was his car, personally cared for and maintained. Through the years, his knowledge and expertise deepened with the exposure to different vehicles. As he rightly observed, no one can be a master of all. You need to really be with the subject you have chosen. His happiness with his role in life was a deep contentment, reflected in the excellent condition of his vehicle and driving skills.

We spoke on a wide range of topics from the recent political events to family and work, business and learning. He made some astute observations and was up to speed in terms of infrastructure development all by virtue of his job. I was happy to just ask questions and he obliged easily.

The sense I received from his absolute assuredness was a detachment of the sort I haven’t encountered in person. He played the roles he had been given with no expectations and clarity of purpose. An active life of service without attachment. I found myself humbled and privileged to have made his acquaintance.

Hari Om is how he greets anyone so much so that many call him by that name. I’m just grateful to have had the wisdom of his words.

The day opened into another interesting exploration about menstruation with two unlikely people, a retired brilliant business head for a worldwide brand and a younger second generation engineer. Both men, with none of the usual avoidance of anything to do with periods and a great deal of openness to understand what it means to be female and bleeding.

In a matter of 12 hours, I had a yoga lesson from an unlikely teacher, lessons in business and a heart fill of love in the presence of my firstborn. I couldn’t have asked for more.

One of the beautiful juxtapositions of religion and business. A temple in a tree in the compound of an old business complex.

Watering the tree of life

I swam today after many months. The water was just right and the evening sky was a sight for thirsty eyes. Treetops fading into twilight even as the birds slowly fell silent and the bats started whizzing around. A few of them skimmed the pool waters and I watched them as I swam or floated on my back. There was a dead dragonfly being taken apart by industrious ants and I watched them keep at it in between laps. Life and living, death and dying. And in the middle the waves of all duality.

Floating on my back, I felt alive like I haven’t felt in a long time. Just the open skies, water and life around me was enough to pump some energy into this tired container. After I came home, something prodded me to pick out a book blind and it turned out to be The Tree of Yoga. The page opened to the chapter titled Old Age. It used the analogy of swimming in one of the paragraphs and I was struck once again by the resonance of thoughts. Uncanny how they are amplified in every day living.

Another book led to exploring the element of water and it led to a rumination on the rupa of water within and without. Eventually it comes to the breath of life, inspiration and expiration. In waves, always moving else it stagnates and dies. How many vritti waves happen in the mind between that first inhalation and final exhalation?

Why do you practise yoga?

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

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

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

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

Update:

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

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

This lovely card is a physical expression of an invisible sangha

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

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

Hari Om