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.

Backbending in July

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfolding

I was in Prashantji’s online class today and it was a revelation how he managed to make pawanamuktasana such a powerful asana. I don’t think I will ever see it simply as a release pose or a preparatory one for Supta Padangushtasana.

Post class as I sat to gather my thoughts and reflect on what he spoke about, I thought back about one of his earlier classes which revolved around saucha. Today, there was an exploration on satya as well as the prithvi tattva. His classes are an invitation to explore. They are not to be treated as an asana class in the traditional sense as he opens up multiple interlinked points through the 2 hours. And the thing is, each of them are worth an entire practice hour or two over a long period of time.

RIMYI has been a unfolding for me. Sometimes students argue about wanting to go to the ‘next’ level and I feel they miss the point completely. The more time one spends in those initial years, the more ease there is in the later ones. A certain ripening. I see how my body, mind and breath cooperate better now and often surprise me with an effortless entry into never before attempted poses. Today, I experienced a glimpse of what might have been referred to as breath condition, mind condition and body condition in rope sirsasana. It is a comfortable enough asana to be in as there is no physical effort required. And yet there are shifts in the mind and breath. The fluctuations or vrittis have a visceral expression.

Not really related but when he smiles, he reminds me of Geetaji.

“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 – 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.

The Joy of Practice

Months with 5 weeks have an extra serving of inversions and this evening’s class was an Adho Mukha Vrikshasana spread! There are many videos and instructions on handstands available online but the solidity of a live session is something else. As I kept doing multiple attempts, it felt like I was back in the big hall. At the end of class, my clothes were drenched and my heart was joyful. My teacher corrected quite a few mistakes and now I have some areas to work with. She has seen me from my very first year and being in her gaze makes a big difference. It is satisfying to push through habits/ conditionings.

Adho Mukha Vrikshasana is a good mirror to see oneself. While there is the physicality of the pose, what is also inherent is one’s approach to the asana. As I reflect on my journey into the pose, I see how my fears came from different areas. There was the knee, the arms, wrists etc. which needed time to be able to come this far. Jumpings were not possible with a bad knee but they are a part of my practice now. I’m able to do them without pain and there is confidence in landing. My arms are skinny and every time I stood on my hands, I would imagine them breaking like dry twigs. That visual image is no longer there. The arms still look like sticks 🙂 but I’m stronger. 

An older picture but this is still where I am, using a passageway to get into the pose.

It is not quite about the pose but the journey towards it that is fascinating for me. It is all the little bits and pieces of experience that one gathers along the way that shape the arrival at one’s destination. Like the LEGO blocks my younger one would play with. Make, break, remake, reimagine, make. This year, I’ve gone into poses I’ve never attempted before with ease simply because of a stubbornness in honing the actions in basic asanas. But sometimes, classes like this are a joy. The sheer exuberance of sweat and effort and will. Sweat cleanses in more ways than one. Effort keeps one grounded in one’s chosen field of study. It strips one of everything but the bare essentials. It shows up one’s own capacities and limitations, allows for respecting and challenging them respectively. But the tempering of discrimination is the key. And will is the backbone.

Life has a good rhythm with yoga being the fulcrum of my days. When I look back at my journey with RIMYI right from the first year of being an eager beaver to feeling out of my depth in intermediate classes to medical sessions for nearly two years followed by the most painful and transformational 3 months, I see a meandering road. Those days were followed by helping around in medical classes and getting back to regular beginner and intermediate classes before a pandemic struck. The online format last year allowed multiple classes and I also began learning pranayama. This academic year, there have been 2 additional sessions as a demonstrator which feels a little more intense than the others since I feel conscious of having to stay steady in the pose. I hope to continue with this sense of stability and contentment. Sthira Sukham Asanam is not only on the mat.

A Gem of a Woman

Geetaji’s birth anniversary today.

I remember her voice. I remember her presence in the large hall. I remember her smile, her earnestness, her simplicity. And I miss never having had the good fortune of being under her direct gaze.

I never learned from her but her videos and books teach me, her students teach me. This morning, I attended the usual two classes, an asana one followed by a pranayama session. Later this evening, Abhijata taught a class in her honour. 3000 people from around the world signed in to remember a brilliant teacher. Despite the isolated nature of the webinar, there was a sense of being part of a community united in its love and respect for a gem of a teacher. It was a repeat of a class Geetaji taught in November 2006 and at the end of it, it was amazing how even in a rendition, her words was still so powerful. Not a moment of wavering attention, that’s how strongly she forced you to inhabit the moment in the asana from even beyond the dead.

I remember how devastated I felt when she passed away, it was a loss that felt very personal despite never having directly interacted with her. Two years down the line, the sense of loss is no longer there. She lives in the words of my teachers who faithfully transmit what they learned from her. She herself was the staunchest torch bearer of the Iyengar Yoga tradition.

Lately, I’ve been in a sort of retreat while being in the world. Digitally disconnected in terms of news, social media and even blogging and I got time in swathes. My days have been a fulfilling mix of a little work, yoga, walks and reading. The connectivity provided by the internet while useful has also sucked much out of life and the past few weeks of fullness has had me thinking that I could easily make this my default setting. The woods I frequent have been a wonderful learning ground this past year. I’ve spent many hours walking, absorbing not just the pleasures of fresh air and quiet but also lessons about time, love, silence, joy and what it means to live fully. There is contentment in its simplicity and I find it has seeped into my life too.

This month’s thought says Yoga is to surrender. It is so beautifully linked to last month’s thought of Yoga is Action. Abhyasa and Vairagyam. Asanas and Savasana. Inhale And Exhale. Increasingly I find that maybe there is no need for more words, whether to read or write. All that I need to know is already known.

Practitioner vs. Sadhaka

It’s been a month since I’ve been attending virtual classes and they’ve settled into a nice rhythm, providing an anchor to the week. It has the rigour of a physical class but with a little extra caution since each of us students have to be responsible for our own safety in the confines of our homes. I’m glad this avenue exists to continue learning but I also miss many things about a regular class.

I miss the hard wooden props like the Vipareeta Dandasana bench, the trestle as well as the ceiling ropes, grills and the like. I miss the callouses on my palms from the ropes. I miss the call and response of the invocation, there is an energy to the whole class reciting together which is absent in this format. I miss the silence and air in the large hall during practice, the noise of props being moved during therapy class and most of all the hands on assistance that would often teach in leaps. Perhaps, not very yoga worthy to miss things but it is how I feel. RIMYI is home.

Studying like this has been a more introspective and slower way of practice for me. I find myself working with breaking down asana actions into regions, currently it is the upper back. There is hesitation in some of the inversions and back bends, the easy familiarity with them has become distant with a summer practice of less energetic poses. This morning, it was like playing lego with lots of books and a few bricks to find that upper back action and some back bends. It’s so easy to slide but the body also remembers and comes back with a little nudging. Despite the rustiness, I see a natural progression.

Last week one of the classes had some prep work for pranayama and I found heaviness and resistance. I asked my teacher about it later and he recommended using the support of a prop. So, I played with bricks, bolsters, a combination of bolsters and blankets and found that bricks work best for me now, maybe something else will later. It was the same earlier too, the hard wooden props reassure me more than the softness of bolsters. Maybe it is a preference for the edge of a little discomfort?

Lately, I’ve been re-reading the Core of the Yoga Sutras, it’s a beautifully nuanced rendering of the Yoga Sutras in an interlinked manner. Yesterday, I was reading the chapter on Sadhana Krama – Method of Practice.

The second sentence, ‘Sadhaka must be a skilled and accomplished practitioner of sadhana’, made me pause and think about the name of this blog, anonymous sadhaka and how it is not entirely appropriate if I had to follow the definition! Practitioner would be more like it.

Guruji speaks about four aspects of Sadhanaśodhana, śosana, śobhana, śamana and ties it in with Sadhana Kriya of Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishwara Pranidhana culminating in bhakti.

Sadhana demands an investigating and examining mind if the action is to purify (śodhana). Dessication and absorption (śosana) are needed to remove the body’s defects and for an auspicious presentation (śobhana). When the effortful efforts transform into an effortlessness state then one experiences the calm and soothing state of śamana.

These are juxtaposed with the kosas and nature of sadhana as bahiranga, antaranga and antaratman. Therein I find the beauty of these texts, layers upon layers, at once a progression and a composite. Finally, he ties up the chapter by enumerating the pillars of sadhana – Sraddha, Virya, Smrti, Samadhi Prajna in Sutra 1.20 – Practice must be pursued with trust, confidence, vigour, keen memory and power of absorption to break this spiritual complacency.

Last week, I was invited to be part of an event that was celebrating the achievements of that organization. It got me thinking about how different it is from asana practice. there are no annual celebrations or milestone markers. Sometimes there is thrill of getting into a pose that was unattainable earlier but it is momentary and there is no specific outcome save the process. Again, I found myself asking myself, why do I practice? It is for the sake of practice, I never know what the mat brings me, both while on it and after.

Having limited work has meant more time for asana practice and plenty of outdoors, especially long ambles in the woods. The world outside continues to burn in more ways than one- environmental disasters, natural calamities and human cruelty alongside a pandemic that continues to run its course. Life is uncertain, always has been just that this time around it has been a collective experiencing of the same. At some point, this page will turn and it may be for the better or worse, it is hard to say considering how much we’ve battered ourselves as a species as well as the planet we call home. All that we have is the number of breaths we will take here and maybe that can be in the spirit of an offering.

In gratitude for the blessings of yoga

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Asana practice is a bit like playing with lego. Build, unbuild, rebuild. Repeat.