Beginning again

Beginner’s class is an evergreen class. We did a lot of parivritta and some parsva variations of standing poses and inversions. Some asanas with the bent legs is a challlenge for the knee but with a little adjustment or replacement, the class is manageable.

What is the inner shape of an asana? After class, the imprint of the asanas was felt as a receptacle shape in the lower abdominal region. A new experience of an old asana. I don’t know what to make of it so it’s just noted until further experience. Twists are tricky. Often I think I turn but the body hasn’t really moved all that much. An adjustment shows how much more space can be created. I find myself holding back and one of the assistants who helped me a lot in the therapy classes provided the necessary confidence to move further.

It feels like I am quenching thirst in these classes. Struggling with basic asanas, listening to the same instructions but in the context of a changed body and mind and watching other bodies is being a beginner in a much richer way. Years ago, I started my journey at RIMYI in this very class and it seems very fitting to recommence here.

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The Art of Yoga

The empty hall is like a stage and the practitioners take their positions and props through that space to different rhythms. Yoga as an art is as evocative as classical Indian dance in its grace, poise and strength. It’s something I have come to appreciate as a practitioner and spectator, the art in this science. It reminds me of the a sentence in the foreword by Yehudi Menuhin, one of my favourite passages.

“Whoever has had the privilege of receiving Mr. Iyengar’s attention, or of witnessing the precision, refinement and beauty of his art, is introduced to that vision of perfection and innocence which is man as first created – unarmed, unashamed, son of God, lord of creation – in the Garden of Eden.”

I’ve spent the better part of two years looking at Light on Yoga images on the walls especially the contrast between the grainy black and white pictures and later coloured images. In his later years, Guruji looks still like undisturbed water as against the dynamism of his younger days. The other day, I was in the empty practice hall and thought of the one breath of life that connects all life, past, present and future. How many inhalations and exhalations had this space seen as they emerged and returned to source?

The space I gravitate towards remains the area near the trestle at the prop end, away from the hustle of a full hall. It’s quiet. There is comfort in the solid wood, cold floor and piles of props, all meant to serve bodies and minds that seek to learn, recover and heal. It’s a spartan space, as bare as it was when first constructed and part of the appeal lies in that asceticism. The window looks out to a large creeper that has wound itself around a tree trunk. Sometimes, when it rains, the sound of the water makes for a soothing backdrop. Life finds a way to adapt, survive and thrive.

One of my friends accuses me of being too square, a purist and I think, how can one not be when you see the richness and depth of an unadulterated pursuit? Every art demands obedience for a long, dedicated period before being ready to break rules, to create work which has enduring appeal. Yoga as practised by Guruji has that timeless quality and it continues in the living legacy of his students and their students.

Teacher’s Day

In contemporary India, 5th September is marked as Teacher’s Day. A day when schools and colleges set aside regular work to acknowledge and appreciate those who mould minds and further a spirit of enquiry. It was instituted in 1962 on Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birthday. The man was the second president of a free India and a lifelong teacher whose life was grounded in the principles of Advaita Vedanta.

Traditionally, we have always had an auspicious day in honour of the guru, guru pournima, but that’s usually celebrated in the classical disciplines of art, yoga, ayurveda etc. The young people in schools and colleges know of this one better.

A guru is a good fortune that few are privileged to receive. Good and great teachers are thankfully more accessible to us. They are also a rare breed but thankfully at the institute, we have many gifted teachers who share of themselves generously. One thing they all have in common is the spirit of studentship and exploration, never a stasis of knowing it all. Another is the deep satisfaction when a student had that moment of understanding and each teacher has a unique way of expressing that joy. It is a deep personal connect that unites the teacher and taught in a moment of union.

Yesterday was an interesting class, mostly practice alone and it felt like a return to normalcy. That shift is real for this stage of my yoga journey. I feel it in the way breath spreads in my upper torso, like rain. It spreads far more wider and every part feels watered. I look at Guruji’s pictures from the different locations I occupy in the large hall at RIMYI and see how his chest appears in all the photographs. Fearless. Stable. Unshakeable. And I am happy to be in the presence of his living legacy that extends beyond his physical life. One breath that unites across time and space.

The large hall at RIMYI which has been a sanctuary

Perhaps there is progress. My teacher has said we could try a beginner’s class and a therapy one instead of the multiple therapy ones. I don’t know how that will pan out but right now I am grateful for the possibility. It’s almost like I was in exile for two years from a regular class. The last three months felt incredibly long and gut wrenching in the amount of emotional and mental debris it threw up. Is it all out? Hard to say but there is acceptance to stay with it and experience despite the resistance. It’s hard to convey the breakthrough but I’m sure yoga has given this to many before me and will continue to bless more people after me too. It was possible because of my teachers and their teachers in an unbroken line of experential wisdom. The mark of their beauty is their abhyasa and vairagyam. I suspect they’d be uncomfortable with the gratitude but grateful I am, deeply. This is but a small tribute to their generosity and compassion.

My pranams from the heart.

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

Time in Yoga

The other day, I was prone in class and from where I lay I could see different setups and a whole lot of focused faces. In a flash, there was a thought of time being measured, not in minutes or seconds but experience. It gallops in pleasure and drags its feet in times of sorrow. In the experience of asana, there is no room for sequential time, only experiential time. It’s the ‘atha‘ from the first sutra, the state of preparedness which opens the possibility of freedom from the limitations of time, space and causality.

The medical class is always fascinating to watch. Bodies of all ages and various levels of ability are helped, often quite vigorously. I watch backs mostly and see how all of our therapy revolves around the spine. Personally, I’ve found relief after a change in sequence and a marked difference in the body between two sessions.

It is extremely hard to surrender the desire for an active practice and experience the quietness of a long passive and recuperative one. There is no other way. Outside of class, the body holds its stresses in different parts and I’m learning to let go as soon as awareness appears. Sometimes all that is required is to step out of my own way.

All bodies age and I see senior practitioners with their struggles too. The change in the body’s topography and the disturbances of life’s circumstances erode its physical expression. I see it in my existence too, the need for reading glasses and a slowing down. The body is a decaying instrument and will lose its capacity over time. I suppose one can only do the necessary sadhana to look after it to keep the heart and mind in fit condition for yog. That agility and endurance calls for a different practice.

Does a lack of complicated poses or a rigorous sequence make it any less of sadhana? My head says no but the heart is only just about accepting its truth. Asana is one petal, the others are oceans in themselves.

My recent exploration has been the Isavasya Upanishad and as always, I remain enthralled by the sheer poetry and simplicity of age old words. All of the Upanishads leave me with a sense of upliftment despite not really understanding it. Just the words bring much joy and I cannot begin to imagine how much more unpacking its essence would bring. But then again I suppose then it wouldn’t matter, there would be no sense of separation. It is a matter of many lifetimes before any of that becomes even remotely possible. For now, I listen to its music, enthralled.

One of the things that jumped out was the need for balance, an echo of abhyasa and vairagyam. It is an ongoing experimentation for me to learn to temper a tendency for solitude with a healthy sense of community. It is part of the fabric of being in the householders stage and any tilt towards one extremity is self defeating. Easier said than done but try, I must.

In gratitude to all my teachers, mortal and eternal

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