“Learning is as much an art as teaching”

In the course of classes, assisting, library work etc. there is much teaching available. Senior teachers guide, books and videos educate and so on. Often in the classes for the advanced students, there is an exhortation to learn, to catch what is unsaid but available as experience. That is the heuristic process the teachers would like us to embark upon.

In the process of learning, the architect is really the student. The teacher, teachings rain their bounty but it could either soak and seep into one’s being or then run off. There needs to be preparation, there needs to be a strong why behind the desire to learn. Sometimes it is easy to slip into the metric of years of experience to determine readiness, but it is not a hard and fast criterion. The preparation is more a cultivation of the heart and is available to all.

It has been interesting to see how all that I dabbled in over the last few years has now begun to start coming together. Whether memorising, rereading, writing or blogging, they all have served richly. As M and I continue to read, I see that connections to texts I’ve read earlier arise spontaneously. And that in turn makes me look at related sutras. At the heart of yoga is the Yoga sutras of Patanjali. It circles back to the aphorisms every time. As a text, it is ever fresh.

The invocation to Sage Patanjali at the start of every single session is a powerful reminder of everything we need to remember as yoga practitioners. What is expected as preparation, what is to be explored, the pitfalls and the promise. The invocation we chant at the beginning is an act of devotion, a reminder to ourselves about the twin practices of abhyasa and vairagyam. It is a remembering of our teachers, Gurus and their Gurus all the way until the principle of Patanjali. There can be no true grace in learning without surrender.

Secular studies don’t ask this of its students. But, journeys of the spirit call for the courage to surrender to the unknown. Shraddha, Virya, Smriti and Samadhi Prajna form the base of one’s studentship. The second pada begins with the kriya of sadhana. Core of the yoga sutras has an entire chapter devoted to Sadhana Krama which opens the four aspects of this krama- sodhana, sosana, sobhana and samana. The journey of one’s sadhana is from the body to the Self even if it may not culminate there for most of us. It is the direction in which we proceed.

Abhyasa is primarily to remove the antarayas that afflict us. That requires the laser focus of practice devoted to a single principle. At the crux of it, abhyasa is a practice of purification. From sattva shuddhi comes the yogyata or eligibility. It is brilliant, the beautiful way in which the sutras factor in all aspects of human psychology while laying out a system for self realizatiion.

Sometimes I wonder if the initial purpose of this blog is served anymore. It started because I couldn’t find anything that I could relate to as a raw beginner. Asanas, yes but more than that, I sought to understand what I might expect along the way. I’m still a beginner but there has been a shift from that arambhavastha and the reflections here have mirrored that. But, this has also been a space to document my meander. I’ve decided to do something I did a couple of years back, stay with one thought from an old calendar. This month’s thought is, ‘Yoga is awareness’. Hopefully, I may wrap up the contemplation with a post.

Month’s end and year’s close

December was intense, packed to capacity. Yet it didn’t feel like a blur but just a full measure of itself. It was a month of a 2 week intensive over and above regular classes, volunteer work, a couple of out of town trips, some personal upheaval and a new experience of reading with someone. M and I have been reading Light on Life. Aloud. The last time something like this happened was in school when the teachers would make us read in turns. This has been a great exercise in more ways than one. The nature of these readings is different, slower, in smaller portions and in the light of lived experience, more nuanced. It is much richer for the exchange of experience, interpretation and questions that arise. Consequently, much of my earlier readings have surfaced in context to the experience of yoga today and I have been re-reading them. We read in person or online everyday and it is something I look forward to. The book is an all-time favourite and I am delighted when she finds joy in its words.

While it seems like all the work we do as yoga practitioners is physical, the bulk of yoga really is in the mess and muddle of living our day to day lives. This book is a beautiful exploration of yoga beyond the mat and I read it cover to cover at least once a year. It is also one which sees a generous dipping into whenever I need a shot in the arm. Open up any page and there is something that speaks to you.

As I assist in classes and therapy sessions or then sub for a teacher, I see myself in the struggles of other bodies. Outwardly, I seem all put together but on the mat, there is a dance of making space and pushing boundaries. The changing vagaries of a woman’s physiology make time on the mat a practice of surrender. I don’t know what the day will bring and have to listen to the body’s needs. That is a separate post in itself. It is good abhyasa to prepare for life as someone growing older and heading towards the next phase. Considering the intensive, practice was not possible with the classes we were doing but now there is a routine back in place. Practice in the hall has been good as there is so much to learn, from the teachers of course but also in being helped by and helping one’s peers.

Since it is the turn of the year, it is also habitual to reflect on the year that has passed and think about the one that is an yet to be born. Right at the start, Covid and unemployment hit. Workwise, it has been a lacklustre year although I managed to keep afloat. But, somewhere there was a firm faith that I would receive what I needed and that is exactly what happened. Asana practice was a mix of progress, slowing down, changing track. As someone with many problem areas, it is both a blessing and sometimes a mild frustration. Blessing because there is time spent in basic actions, working slowly and gaining a sensitivity that might not have been there otherwise. It also helps me when I have to help someone else. Mid year saw the reopening of RIMYI, offline classes and a gradual change of my role there. It took me time to inhabit this role. At year’s end, I belong. And I remain fascinated by how one man created such a tremendous wealth of wisdom in his lifetime. His children, grand children, teachers and students carry on the legacy and listening to them, learning from them is precious.

Yoga has always been there as the path to walk on but I didn’t think it would choose me. I kept looking over my shoulder thinking that it could not possibly be calling me. But, as everything else fell off by the way side and I stood alone, it was impossible to not see that it was really harking to me. I’m content and my heart feels filled to the brim with the shape of my life. Studentship and service is a good place to be. I would like to add another day of practice in the hall in the coming year and work with renewed vigour on the texts. Signing off with one of the aha moments from a recent pranayama class which really stayed with me, “Penetration happens from the back body”.

Practice and Plateaus

Back in the hall after Diwali break and it was a quiet practice session in the morning. It was a little nippy and I put my mat near the entrance where the sun lightly toasted the floor. Restorative asanas mostly. That corner found a few people huddling for warmth. While the cool floors are great in summer, in cooler weather, they can be, well, cold. Some of Prashantji’s words from the Patanjali Jayanti Q & A session kept circling in my head. There are some answers there that I need to apply, implement. The sibling also echoed similar sentiments so I’ve been re-examining and working on rearranging things in my life.

Recently, I read something which resonated loudly.

“​If you always put limits on yourself and what you can do, physical or anything, you might as well be dead. It will spread into your work, your morality, your entire being. There are no limits, only plateaus. But you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.” – Bruce Lee

I didn’t quite identify the plateau phase for what it is. And that last sentence echoed Geetaji’s exhortation. The plateaus are such an essential part of the journey. One needs time to assimilate and synthesize before moving on. While it appears static, there is a lot happening under the surface, just that it is not visible. Perhaps, one doesn’t really slow down enough or maybe the sensitivity is lacking to observe and note dispassionately. All one thinks of is the seeming stagnation.

Post practice this morning, I sat outside for a while and tried to think about what my practice showed me today. And today’s observation was that asana is a container for the breath, mind and body to play. Asana as a seat is a witnessing of that interwoven nature of all three. In my raw state, all I see are glimpses and the presence of all three but isolating the strands to identify them individually and in their interconnected way is not available. I suppose one needs to spend time in lots of plateaus and persist with devotion and courage. (1.14)

Studentship

What a fabulous day! 

There is a steady rhythm to the week with its fullness. Class, chores, a little work and a little tinkering in terms of asana practice. Thursdays see me practice in the hall now, something I had thought I would do once the youngling started college. Usually, it is a repetition of whatever was done the previous day in class to sort of reinforce the learning. But today, I had planned to work on ekpada sirsasana and sarvangasana. So, prepped accordingly and got into the pose when one of the old timers came and showed me an area to work on. So, out with the ekpada it was and the rest of my time was devoted to learning that action. I went into ardha sirsasana to learn multiple actions in the pose. By the end of my practice session, I had an experience in and of sirsasana that was a first.

The day was a full one as I spent the rest of it with a niece I was meeting after a decade. Conversation, some decadent cake and coffee and loads of laughter later, it was time for class and I was mildly regretting stuffing my face. Thankfully, the evening session doesn’t see hardcore inversions so I thought I could wing it. I didn’t have the time to think of having a full belly as the teacher took us through various approaches. The highlight was a lovely adho mukha baddakonasana. I struggle with baddakonasana and a forward bend in it is way off without enough prep work  but today’s class took me into a quiet pose, one that I could have stayed in for longer. 

At day’s end, I feel exhilarated. I learned many things, discovered many things. Often, asana practice is simply toiling and tinkering with very little dramatic change. All the regular work improves range but those paradigm shifts happen when the necessary tilling of the body’s soil is done. Although it looks like a lot of body work, it is not about the body at all. It is a seeing.

It’s been about 4 months since the institute opened and the shape of my days is very different from what I could have imagined. In the very initial days of this academic year, it was confusing for me, especially while assisting. Somehow practising in the hall is where a whole different kind of education is happening. Between the varied levels of classes and the engagement in them, I am being shaped. While outwardly it seems like training to be an assistant or teacher, I feel I’m really being opened as a student.    

Why practise?

Despite spending so much time at the institute, I have never practised in the hall, barring a couple of times, pre-pandemic. Practice is a solitary endeavour at home. I suppose it is a bit of shyness at having my struggles out in the open. In a class, I never feel that but practice is such an intimate and private process that I am hesitant. But, I had decided that once the child began college, I didn’t need to rush home and could do at least one practice session a week in the hall. So, today it was. And quite an interesting one. I remember one of Geetaji’s old students telling me that she used to tell all the practitioners to get together and practise but it rarely happened. The household usually takes prime place especially when children are young and/or there are elderly family members. It is a difficult spot. I digress. This post is to make note of a day when I did something different.

I wasn’t quite sure about what to do so started off with Supta Padangushtasana 1 and worked on similar asanas in terms of limb orientation. Practice is like playing with Lego blocks, you make, break, remake, redesign, etc. Long story short, I got a couple of cues from one of the old-time RIMYI teachers that dramatically improved what I was trying to work on. And in the bargain, the action opened up areas that were not accessible. Later I got chatting with a couple of others who were there. I was able to help them and could also request them to give me a hand with some of my asanas. And just like that a couple of hours went by.

While speaking with them, I realised that my learning process is different from theirs. They pursued asanas and had a final pose to show for it while mine was a more circuitous route with a focus on the intermediate actions in them. The downside is I don’t have a final pose very often as I don’t practice many of the advanced poses but when I am ready, the asana sort of happens without too much of a struggle. In some sense, this method is an imprint of one of my teachers. His classes would often be peppered with ‘as intermediate students… ‘ and go on to talk about the stages of moving into a pose, the breath in it etc. His asanas and assists are sheer artistry to watch and experience and therein lies the appeal of yoga as art. As I type, I remember one Punya Thithi where he spoke about his youthful experiences and Guruji giving him a copy of The Art of Yoga

After practice, I was thinking of the process of learning, education, teaching. Why does one learn? How does one learn? How does one learn to learn? Why does one teach? How does one teach? Why the need for education? Many of these spring from the special weekly sessions and simmer in the background. Wednesdays are particularly heavily loaded with classes starting at 7am. There is a lot of input through the multiple classes and training session and medical class. I finally crawl home by 9pm only to speed out of home the next morning at 5:30am. I do get a few hours in the afternoon in which I hop over to a friend’s place and take a snooze. And some days, I have a hearty meal at a nearby cafe. Today, it was Thalipeeth with curd, fresh off the griddle and served with curd and pickle. The owner later got me a small portion of sheera and insisted that I have it. It was a pure ghee and jaggery laden indulgence.

Post demonstrating for the evening class, it struck me once again how yoga has been an organic unfolding for me. If I am asked, why do I practise asana, I have a different reason today. Earlier I would feel it was for physical wellbeing, mental clarity, emotional stability etc. but now it is because when I am on the mat, there is nothing but the action at hand. The world sort of ceases to exist for that spell.

“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.

Sequencing is an art

Practised to a sequence from one of the classes last year. At the time, the effort required overshadowed all the other tastes in the asana. It is only with the passing of time that we see progress. On an everyday basis, all I see is what I cannot do, not what comes easier. From this distance, I was simply struck by the creative genius of the sequence he employed that day. As a teacher, he has been more a devotee of the subject and his Guru. It comes through very clearly in his delivery. He knows LOY inside out and has a fantastic memory with respect to the photos in the hall.

While I know and appreciate the importance of sequencing, in my notes, the sequence would be secondary to the tidbits about Guruji or the Sutras or analogies or a focus action. The bodily effort is simply a way to prepare one to explore one’s own true self. But, today I was struck with the threading of a sequence as an art. The principles of sequencing are not complex, they are based in common sense and are not rigid. Often, one mistakes the list of asanas as a standard over the counter delivery for certain issues. Some things are established and we don’t mess around with it but else, there is a lot of freedom to experiment.

At my level, it is still body driven with rudimentary awareness of breath and mind. I observe but do not have the knowledge or maturity needed for experimenting with it. But, sometimes there is a brief experience of that cohesion, like in savasana today.

In RIMYI news, the institute gets more lively by the day with things getting ready for the fresh academic year. It is a different era now with both offline and online classes. As for me, I am simply happy to be back. It has been a constant through these last years even when it was shut. If I had to articulate what draws me there, I wouldn’t have one answer. RIMYI is many things. It is the generosity of a man who gave all of himself to the world, it is the devotion and dedication of the teachers who carry on his legacy, it is the space itself- a pulsating one that has remained a place of study, endeavour and transformation for so many. I could go on but it probably would not make much sense if one hasn’t experienced it for themselves. Sharing a few pictures here for you Suzy. The last image is of the space allocated for the book store and is adjacent to the new entrance.

Holiday Practice – Twisted

Twists are neutralizing. As a category, I find them easy and they feature in practice as release asanas. So, it is is not often that they get exclusive attention. Somehow, today I felt the need for them and so it was dorsal work in standing and seated twists. Sirsasana and Sarvangasana were lighter as a result.

Parsva to Parivritta or then parsva and parivritta. We progress from a simple twist to a revolved action. And it is interesting at many planes. Often, as part of the learning process, we compromise one part or action to gain access to another and in this manner stack up to strike the pose in its entirety. Parivritta poses are a case in point. They require not just a turn but also a crossing over. There is merit in viewing them as a way to train the mind to ‘cross over’ from a rigid or fixed view. How do you see beyond your own limited understanding? Twists make you inhabit a different place and necessarily the gaze changes. It opens up possibilities, potentialities while showing more than what is visible. The mechanics of the asana are also interesting with its inbuilt brakes and levers giving it a sharpness.

Usually, I’ve found agility of reflexes post twists but today was more of a sense of quiet. I started with lying down on a brick and proceeded with simple seated twists, standing parivritta poses (trikonasana, parsvakonasana, ardha chandrasana) followed by Bharadwajasana 1, 2, Marichyasana 3, Adho Mukha Svanasana, Sirsasana, Sarvangasana Setuband Sarvangasana (nice lifted one from sarvangasana) and Savasana.

The holiday month is almost over and I think I will pause these daily (attempt at daily) posts. They began as a way to anchor myself in a slack period, workwise. It would have been easy to get dejected otherwise and this exercise has been most useful in maintaining a semblance of routine. But, now there are other commitments that need my attention.

The institute is abuzz with admissions and it is nice to meet familiar faces. I’m just happy to be back in a space I love and am looking forward to classes in the big hall. This month has shown me that I’m rusty for not having had the benefit of a teacher’s touch. It has been over 2 years and I do feel there has been a level of holding back compared to when I was attending in person.

Many things have changed in these pandemic months. Bodies have aged, minds are tired and hearts are heavy. There is much angst in the world with anxiety, violence, climate crisis, war and uncertainty. I suppose in a digital world, we are simply more keenly informed but not as connected. Touch. Is there any greater connection than that? Circling back to twistings, they are wonderful connectors as they complete the circuit of touch.

Holiday Practice- Hanging out

Late evening on the ropes. Rope Sirsasana and I go back a long way. Many years ago, while pregnant with my second child, I used to attend the classes at Yogashray in Bombay. Back then, I did a lot of rope Sirsasana. All the way till the end. Subsequently, I had an easy pregnancy and childbirth but unfortunately yoga got dropped as I was swept in the chaos of two young children and a full time job. Years later, it was rope Sirsasana again due to cervical spondylosis. Much later it was a swinging sirsasana on ceiling ropes. It is a great alternative to an independent pose but I don’t do enough of it. Today felt like a day to stay in sirsasana without having to put in much effort and so the ropes.

I’ve been interacting with many old students of the institute over the last few days. Many of them have been coming to RIMYI since 30 – 40 years. One gentleman in particular mentioned that his doctor told him that he now had degenerative changes in his spine and that he should avoid sirsasana. But he doesn’t really, thanks to the option of ropes as Uma Tai mentioned. All the benefits and none of the strain. Watching and listening to many students in their 70s and a few in their 80s (who look much younger), I see how yoga has been a mainstay in their lives. I’ve seen some of them in the hall and there is a quietness in their asanas. Very different from the vigour of intermediate or beginner classes.

I feel the fragility of the body when I hold my mother or Amma. It is something like that of an infant, just more delicate. With the very young, there is a future where they will grow into robust youth but the weakening of old age is a decaying one. And I am reminded of Guruji’s words in Light on Life, “By accepting nature’s challenge and joining the game, we find ourselves on a windswept and exciting journey that will pay benefits commensurate to the time and effort we put in—the lowest being our ability to tie our own shoelaces when we are eighty and the highest being the opportunity to taste the essence of life itself.”

Holiday Practice – Context

Do Supta Padangushtasana as a supine asana.” One of my teachers mentioned it in a class before we broke for the holidays. And so, I did.

Supta Padangushtasana is a go to pose when figuring out an approach. I went a slightly different route today though by beginning with a supported vipareeta dandasana. Later, it was Supta Padangushtasana 2, Ardha Chandrasana and Uthita Hasta Padangushtasana 2. All supported.

Similar shapes, different planes. A study in context.