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.

Beginning Again

This academic year, I opted to do only the intermediate classes thinking that perhaps I ought to get out of the familiar comfort of attending a beginner’s class as well. But, I found myself in one again, quite unexpectedly. This time as a demonstrator. It was a trip down nostalgia lane as I listened to all the questions at the end of the session. I remembered my eagerness and the questions I had but never dared voice. The students in these classes are brave, asking the very same things I was too shy to ask. I smile inside thinking about the thirst to know and the need to know if my asanas were the way they were meant to be. I wanted validation then, I wanted to be the best student in the hall. Looking back, there is a fondness for that enthusiastic student quite like how I feel about my children when they were younger.  

The intermediate classes have been cranked up a bit unlike last year when the online medium was still new and there was hope of it being a temporary arrangement for a year or so but this time around, online classes have become more established. I wonder if this mode of instruction will continue once things stabilize and it is possible to have classes in person. It is hard to think of Iyengar yoga and not feel its nature of touch, hard wooden props in the big hall, the buzz of conversation etc. Earlier in the day, I found myself thinking of how rich my time in the therapy classes was. I thought I was observing, what was happening was really an absorption more than just noticing. I remembered two cases in particular and it prodded some additional reading.

While making notes today, it was interesting to think about the Kurmasana that was covered last evening, quite by chance. It was an option among other asanas that we could do. I think part of the reason for choosing it was Speedy. Speedy is a rescued turtle who has been with a friend and is currently with me. It is lovely to see him enjoy basking in the sun, he looks quite sphinx like with his pose. At such times, his reptilian stance reminds me of Bhujangasana. And at others, he can withdraw so completely inwards that there is nothing but a shell visible. While Speedy is a little unusual (he moves incredibly fast for a turtle), he has the capacity like others of his species to remain without agitation. Animals teach us much, little wonder that they figure in the names of so many asanas. Garudasana, Salabhasana,  Adho Mukha Svanasana, Bakasana, etc.

So much is packed in a name.

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.

Yoga is Action

Think action and the twin attitudes of Abhyasa and Vairagyam flow together. And that is the art of living as a science, philosophy and art.

If I were writing in sutras, I’d simply leave it at this.

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.

Savasana reflection post class

Savasana was a longish stay today and after an almost leisurely class, the stay in it felt like I did not exist, save for a section of the torso that had the movement of breath. I did not have a sense of the rest of my body, it was like there was nothing there, no limbs. Soon after, my teacher parts class with “Go beyond the structure of savasana” and that explained my experience.

I see another transitioning, from ebullience in backbending to dynamic stillness in it. The immediate image that comes to mind is one of Guruji in an urdhva dhanurasana against the platform. Eventually, I suppose it would become even quieter where one might be able to go beyond the structure of the asana.

Notes from practice, classes etc are pointless against the actual experiencing. The last 2 or 3 months, I’ve stayed away from making notes and instead let the body make its own.

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.

“Yoga is compassion”

August’s thought was one that I was conscious about every single day. This one was a tough one to stay with, it threw up many false notions about myself. The degree of compassion often only extends to where my ideas and beliefs are not at odds.

Compassion means being able to pause, reflect and respond.

Compassion means listening completely, including silences.

Compassion means a deep sense of oneness, it cannot exist in separateness.

Compassion means being of service, not being attached.

Compassion is easier with people outside of your immediate family where the opportunity for friction is less.

 

Just a placeholder post while I let this thought linger.