Aparigraha in a pandemic

Guruji was born during an influenza epidemic and his life was a difficult one for many decades. Even his early yoga journey was fraught with pain and hardship. He lived through pre-Independence India, poverty, ill health, loss, fame and prosperity. The one constant through it all was yoga and his sadhana went on to make him a household name. Despite all the accolades, he remained a student of the subject till the very end. Yoga was him and he was yoga. Period. For the likes of me, it is not as complete an immersion but we try to the best of our life situations.

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This morning I spent time with Pada 2 of the sutras and came back to 2.39 on aparigraha. Reflecting on it, I saw that it was basically talking about de-conditioning.

Quoting from the commentary in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,

Aparigraha means not only non-possession and non-acceptance of gifts, but also freedom from rigidity of thought. Holding on to one’s thoughts is also a form of possessiveness, and thoughts, as well as material possessions should be shunned. Otherwise they leave strong impressions on the consciousness and become seeds to manifest in future lives.”

Aparigraha is the subtlest aspect of yama, and difficult to master. Yet, repeated attempts must be made to gain pure knowledge of ‘what I am’ and ‘what I am meant for’.”

Constant inquiry is an integral part of learning yoga at RIMYI, it’s always dynamic and evolving. Never static and despite the curriculum remaining the same, the approach and teaching incorporate new elements. In a more personal context, I am reminded of what my teacher said about ‘seeds of weeds’. By working beyond just the apparent relief of body and heart, there was a reset in established patterns of thought and behaviour, a rewiring. That the mind can be addressed through the body is now internalized knowledge and not just theoretical.

It’s easy to get caught in fixed ways of thinking and feeling both on and off the mat and this clinging on prevents one from a deeper understanding of any situation. I also see it in asana as I explore beyond the actions required to assume a pose. As long as I am just repeating the instructions I have learned, I limit myself. Of course, the initial repetition is essential to internalize the method but the unfolding is in the personalizing of its interpretation. A bit like improvisation in music. Once you learn the notes and practise the scales for a suitable length of time, you can break the rules to explore and then the subject begins to also teach you.

I still remain cautious in asana but there’s an experimental feel to it as I correlate lessons from class and home practice. This week both the classes worked actively with the groin area and today’s home practice was a passive exploration of the same region from my knee therapy routine. And it taught differently. It got me thinking about how right from day 1 of a beginner’s class, the body is systematically prepared to open to its fullest capacity, literally and figuratively. Strangely, I found the beginner’s class harder than the intermediate one and it made me glad that I chose to retain the former. I guess I’m probably always going to remain a chronic beginner.

Asanas take up a small part of my day and its lessons are not about the body’s ability or progress as much as it is about mental, emotional and spiritual stretching. It is about endurance, resilience, patience, fortitude, good humour, playfulness, compassion and a whole host of other traits that allow us to live through good times and rough times with the same steadiness. These times are despairing with both a pandemic and mindless human violence. But there also exists solidarity and kindness that unite people even in these uncertain days. It may seem unbearable at the moment but all periods of transformation are difficult, individually and collectively. Eventually, we see that old ways have to evolve and adapt to meet the changing needs of a present and it calls for aparigraha. Now more so than ever.

Subsumed in Smriti

A couple of weeks ago, we explored ‘smriti‘ as part of the sutra study at RIMYI. Just a day before that I was talking with someone about memory and since then ‘smriti‘ has been a continuous whisper.

Prashantji mentioned how the other vrittis were ‘subsumed by smriti‘ and that phrase has taken root. Smriti again. Memory is a loose translation for smriti as the latter indicates knowledge recollected as well as the recollection of the process of knowing . The technical delving into the vrittis is a fascinating exercise and one that is deeply rich at the Institute. Between Prashantji and Srineet, there is a lovely balance of structure and flow. I remember thinking how the teachings of the family are like a river, continuously flowing. No matter at what point one enters it, one is bathed. The generosity of their sharing reminds me of something I read once about how sharing even the little we know is important since that could possibly help someone else to get more out of that small piece of knowledge.

Back to smriti, the concept was deeply immediate to my current situation. How does one use smriti in its aklishta form? How do you examine all the vrittis that come remain encapsuled by it? How much can you trust the mind and the senses? Regret for the past and worry about the future also lie in its realm. The current embodiment is a result of smritis of previous lifetimes. How does one work through the weight of all that past?

The sutra leads on to the twin rivers of Abhyasa and Vairagya, one flowing outward and the other to the source. ‘Chitta Nadi’. It is the solution Lord Krishna gives Arjuna as well. Oftentimes when I open the Bhagwad Gita, the page that appears is the shloka (6:35) that provides the same solution. The treatment of the solution in the Sutras and the Gita is the same but its expression is beautiful in both. Terseness in one and personal in the other to suit the capacity of the sadhaka. Krishna taps into the innate warriorhood of the Pandava prince by addressing him as ‘mighty armed’ and brings an empathetic understanding of the difficulty in restraining the restless mind before laying out the prescription.

Abhyasa uses smriti. In asana practice or study of the texts, the mind employs smriti to go further leading to more smriti. And what is the limit of the mind’s capacity? What is the limit of the capacity of the cosmos of which we are not even a drop?

Our lives are part of that uninterrupted recording and we are mostly without any real control since our thoughts and feelings based in the past drive our present. Instinct must come from that recollection of millenia. I imagine (vritti again😊) Vairagya would be the ropes of smriti falling off by itself. No burden of past impressions or future anxieties.

This student is deeply grateful for the experience of listening to the learnings of teachers who have thought deeply on the subject of yog. These ruminations are but a tiny interpretation of what was understood of a few things that they shared. Perhaps in time, something else will be revealed from all that was heard until now.

Hari Om

A wandering student

My evenings have a new routine. Most days, I spend an hour at a park watching the tableau of life play out. Children playing, birds picking their branches for the night, adults walking, older people watching over grandchildren, lovers snatching a cozy conversation and so on. Sometimes I write or read but mostly I just watch the sun as it dips behind tree tops.

Underneath a tamarind tree

I miss watching the sunrise from my new place and the sparrows still haven’t found the bird feeder yet. There are a couple of stray kittens that have stolen my heart and it feels good to shower love with such abandon. The roses continue to bloom as do the jasmines with their heady night scents. The season is beautiful with cool winds and a touch of music as the heart meets the head.

We call him muttbaby 1

In the Iyengar yoga world, there is much excitement with the centenary celebrations and I do hope to make it for atleast one of the days. But, mostly, my offering has been quiet study and fledgling practice. The surprising thing has been the powerful recall of cell memory as I get on the mat.

The Gita continues to be a trusted companion and in the lines I have read many times, I rediscover their beauty all over again albeit with a different flavour. Our interpretations are always coloured by life experiences, always a cumulative of all moments until now.

An alternate set of circumstances has shown a different translation of the same meanings. A year of painful transition or perhaps transformation, only time will tell. For now, it’s a slow beginning once more with nothing the same and everything just so.

I’ve been drawn to the imagery of Patanjali as half man and it has been a focus of contemplation. What does it mean to be human? The bodily representation. of Patanjali as man consists of the trunk resting on the coils of his serpentine half. An ascension of energies possible in a physical structure. A lightness of being in the denseness of existence.

I remain a wandering student destined for self-study and it’s just beginning to dawn on me that maybe it’s liberating. Of course, it also means a lot of wrong turns and a longer time to learn but the journey is worth it. But, it wouldn’t be possible without the wisdom and generosity of knowledge of the giants who came before me. I remain indebted to my many teachers.

Hari Om

Winds of change

I woke up, fresh and alert at around 3:30 this morning. While it was way too early, I didn't really feel like staying in. So, out of bed it was and the kittens were happy to see me, or so I like to think. Fixed myself a cup of black and read for some time. After the usual routine, I did my stuff and thought about time, it's been an unfinished muse since last Saturday.
The early morning hours between 2 am and 6 am are considered the period of vata, a predominant trait in my make up. The very existence of time is movement and space, again attributes of the wind. A couple of days ago, I was mesmerized by the Sutra 4:12. And this morning before class, I found myself climbing up to the terrace at the Institute to pay my respects to Lord Hanuman, the mighty son of the wind.

Class today was primarily twistings and again I thought of the air element in the squeeze and release. Right at the start of class, during the invocation, our teacher's cues changed the sense of occupancy of breath and presence in my body. A different experience, yet again.

There is change in the air, a stirring of old dreams which seem possible and once again, it is the blessings of yoga.🙏 Now, I sit typing these thoughts before they scatter away on the wind…

Hari Om

Rupa-Lavanya-Bala

It’s been a lacklustre few days with respect to asana practice. Barely anything except a few poses for supporting the odd runs. Reading and writing have also taken a backseat and it’s sheer lethargy that prevents the sharp edge of practice.

However, I have been working on a few strength training exercises to run fast. It’s purely muscular work and something I never did despite being told by experienced runners. I find that I have no strength to do really basic stuff, no bala! That’s why some of the asanas also feel very difficult. Cervical spondylosis was responsible for keeping certain kinds of movements out of my reach but now I find that there have been certain shifts in the body and mind. That changes the playing field. 

Rupa, lavanya and bala are qualities that are the measure of the perfect equipment, the body. 

As the sutra says, रूपलावण्यबलवज्रसंहननत्वानि कायसंपत् ।।४६।।

Form, grace and strength of body, mind and heart that is like vajra. I am not sure of the meaning of the term, it is used to refer to Indra’s  thunderbolt as well as a diamond. The attributes of vajra would be hard, brilliant, sharp, powerful etc. One of the stories in the puranas recounts how the vajra was created from the bones of Sage Dadeechi. It is interesting to note that the powerful weapon of a God came out of a human. That’s the potential for perfection possible in the human embodiment. Of course, the tapas required for that kind of perfection would be beyond what we can imagine.

If I muse on the order of qualities in the context of asana, it makes sense as well. First, we learn the rupa (form/ structure/ framework) of the pose, after which we learn lavanya (grace) in execution of the asana without any agitation. Then we use the bala (strength) to stay, to endure. This will come when the effort becomes effortless. Refined strength. Prayatna Shatilyatha. 

Vajranga… master of the siddhis

The ebbs of practice teach me that there are no excuses not to practice. There is strength that is present within that comes from a much greater power. It seemed fitting to learn arm balances in today’s class. The same palms that join in prayer can also carry the weight of this body. Tadasana in our palms too!

Hari Om

Bloomers and a mat

12641 km away from home yet I am at home. All it takes is a mat, bloomers and few books to recreate a familiar space. It’s been luxurious to take my time with asana practice. Yesterday was a couple of hours going through one of the latter sequences in the preliminary course book. Today was exploring the standing asanas from the intermediate course book. One was a quick run through all the categories of asanas while the other was to work a little more intensively. I do miss the fire of a class but the book is a good substitute and if the soreness is any indication, I have worked well. Perhaps, having to be my own teacher is good to learn to pay attention rather than wait for a teacher to draw focus. 

I’m deeply grateful for being given an opportunity to witness nature’s glory in all her brilliance. It’s humbling to see the wheels of time and the wisdom of nature do their thing. The fall colours in Canada are stunning. 

Fall glory

Today’s reading was 10:34. I miss my copy of the Gita with the commentary but I suppose being without any support is good to flex those inner mental muscles. The translation I have reads as follows

 I am death, destroyer of all; I am the source of all things yet to be. Of women I am fame, prosperity, speech, memory, intelligence, fortitude and forbearance. 

The feminine qualities mentioned are all aspects of sustenance and constant change, the function typically assigned to Lord Vishnu. One of the sutras has been on a constant loop in my head and this shloka is a beautiful accompaniment to Patanjali’s aphorism from the Vibhuti Pada.

एतेन भूतेन्द्रियेषु धर्मलक्षणावस्थापरिणामा व्याख्याकाता:।।१३।।

Through these three phases, cultured consciousness is transformed from its potential state (dharma) towards further refinement (lakshana) and the zenith of refinement (avastha). In this way, the transformation of elements, senses and mind take place.

Prakriti in all her complexity is also the means to Purusha. 

Palm reader?

Invoke

Beautifully decorated sculpture of Sage Patanjali at RIMYI

Let us bow before the noblest of sages, Patanjali, who gave yoga for serenity and sanctity of mind, grammar for clarity and purity of speech, and medicine for perfection of health.

Let us prostrate before Patanjali, an incarnation of Adisesa, whose upper body has a human form, whose arms hold a conch and a disc, and who is crowned by a thousand-headed cobra.

– Translation from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by B.KS. Iyengar

Every class begins with the traditional invocation to Sage Patanjali. I find that the cues to adjust the body to prepare for chanting often indicate the locus of the teaching for that day. Sometimes the arms, sometimes the back or the shoulders but always the chest, without fail. The heart and soul of our practice.

There is a transcript of Geetaji’s explanation on the invocation and the reason behind the tradition. She beautifully explains the symbolism behind the individual aspects. Most of the mantras, shlokas, chants etc. are rich in imagery and paint multi sensory forms of the divine. Usually sung as praises, it is bhakti bubbling over in inspired poetry. The form or appearance of the deity becomes a beacon in one’s sadhana. Recitation with shraddha makes the divine form one’s ishta devata.

Adisesa, in his avatar as Sage Patanjali bears the conch and discus. Both these objects are associated with Lord Krishna and commonly used in the texts. The conch as a clarion call to wake up from the delusion of the limited self is nothing but the Lord’s grace. The discus is the sharp edge of sadhana that cuts and refines. It is the instrument used to call his devoted bhaktas who have forgotten their true selves. Perhaps, these powerful symbols gain potency as their syllables roll off one’s tongue. In the translation above, “yoga for serenity and sanctity of mind, grammar for clarity and purity of speech” suggests the universally accepted truth of thoughts becoming words which express themselves in action.

The invocation brings the image of the beautiful sculptures of Sage Patanjali before me as I recite it. It inspires a burning desire to learn and offer everything back to my teachers. It gets me out of my way.  There is much to reflect in the short prayer besides how lovely it sounds. The syllables roll off the tongue with an easy familiarity and yet seem fresh and new each time they are articulated. An offering of all that I am, flawed though it be, in unconditional surrender.

Pranami Patanjalim

Musings on Yama

Recently, I had the opportunity to put together some slides on yamas. It set off multiple trains of thought.

Yama is the name of the Lord of Death and the Lord of Dharma. He is the Lord of the South, the direction Lord Siva faces as Dakshinamurthy. He is divine father to Yudhishthira who is known for his restraint. 

In all the above musings, there is an element of holding back. The common feature in all the yamas is restraint, not giving free rein to indulgence.

The yamas as espoused by Sage Patanjali in the Yog Sutras are five- ahimsa (non violence), satya (truth), asteya (non stealing), brahmacharya (continence) and aparigraha (non greed). The hatha yoga pradipika lists ten yamas- ahimsa (non violence), satya (truth), asteya (non stealing), brahmacharya (chastity), kshama (forgiveness), dhrthi (fortitude), daya (compassion), aarjava (sincerity), mitaahaara (measured diet) and shaucha (cleanliness). The ten commandments in the book of Exodus share the same sentiments. 

Perhaps it is no coincidence that restraint has strain within it. Holding back from giving into instant gratification requires a great deal of power. There is a common image of Lord Krishna holding the reins of the horses as Arjuna’s sarathy (charioteer) which is a beautiful depiction of the skill and poise of control. 

in perfect restraint

Yamas are not easy to practise in everyday life, primarily because they are in relation with others as well as oneself. Just when there is familiarity with one facet of it, lack of it in another aspect brings discomfort. It is a silent practice, continuously shifting paradigms.

Ahimsa translates as non violence which calls for a high degree of restraint and discernment. What constitutes ahimsa? Is it simply overwhelming love or love that cares enough to be tough? The body is an excellent playground to explore ahimsa. It is a fine balance between overdoing and pushing just beyond my comfort zone. 

Ashtanga yoga begins with yama, although in these times, it starts with asanas before one begins to consider what lies below the surface. Until asana started weaving its healing on me, I wasn’t capable of giving deep thought to what the principles really meant. Sure, I had good intentions and generally tried to keep up to them. Very often, I went to extremes and then was not able to sustain what I started. Too much strain, too much force, too much load. And I would slide back into a dejected giving up. I was going about it the wrong way, using violence, while being completely unaware about it. Avidya. 

Running long distances helped me to understand the value of slowly becoming capable to go the distance. A little everday added up to a lot one day. Most of the runs were abhyasa and then there would be an effortless one just like in asana. Strive a little often enough and experience a tiny glimpse of full silence. And the cycle continues.

Restraint happens effortlessly when I am ready. Things that don’t serve me fall off by themselves and lose their attraction. It happens. I don’t do anything but watch. The pull towards instant gratification lessens by bringing a tiny pause before reacting. And little by little, it begins to become longer and natural.

One of my favourite Sutras is 1:33 which talks about friendliness, compassion, happiness and indifference for living in harmony with others and oneself. Initially, it was the sound of the words as they rolled off my tongue that attracted me it. Later, the four attitudes made perfect sense to deal with others and myself. It is so simple. It is possible to gain freedom from repetitive thought patterns and behaviours. The yamas develop courage to face life on its own terms.The tadasana of everyday living.

Hari Om