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.

Holiday Practice – Menstruation

As women, the menstrual cycle provides a pretty reliable reading of the body and mind. To some degree, there is an internal sense of where one is on the cycle simply by virtue of how the body feels. And if one is a practitioner, asanas speak it loudly. Post Covid or mid 40s, I can’t be sure which one or if it is both, my cycles have been mildly irregular and there have been changes. It is a little disconcerting for someone who has been regular as clockwork. Long story short, Day 1 of cycle and it was early but that explained the practice experience yesterday and the day before.

Supine poses, supported forward bends and supported Setuband Sarvangasana was on the menu this evening. Morning saw some supine asanas to relieve discomfort. It also felt appropriate to read through a much-thumbed copy of an essay by Geetaji on the practice of women.

During practice, I also listened to a talk about props by Abhijata from Yoganusasanam 2015. Earlier, I would feel a bit of a missing out when I was menstruating but now it is a welcome relief to stay in supported asanas. I also notice a recalibration of my cycles to the lunar phases every 6 months. I don’t know if there is anything significant about this change but there is a change in creative output every time it is synced to the full moon.

About 7-8 years ago, I got introduced to the idea of practising/ training as per one’s cycle by my then yoga teacher. I used the concept while training for my first half marathon and it became a sort of personal blueprint. I mapped it for a couple of years alongside food intake, sleep and also dominant thought patterns. It was useful to get acquainted with my own being in a methodical way. I no longer maintain the log but the lessons from that endeavour has allowed me to take care of myself as I needed through these years.

I also worked in the space of sustainable menstruation for a few years which opened up a whole universe of challenges. On one hand there was a section of the population that struggled with basic needs of hygiene and sanitation while another grappled with deep rooted gender related anxieties. Across both groups, there were menstrual imbalances. A significant chunk of it could possibly be rectified by simple changes to food and exercise but there was reluctance to change lifestyle habits. While there is a great deal of awareness about the physiological process and the science behind it, we have lost much of traditional sensibility in dealing with a natural phenomenon. There are a few people who ride against the tide but polarization in a digital world is so strong that it is an uphill task to have a reasonable discussion without one side tearing the other down. Like Abhi says, we need to first learn to connect then to communicate, only then can we integrate and there can be union.

Holiday Practice – Backbend preps

Somehow through these days, the asanas that have come up have been inspired by fauna. But maybe that could also be because of the sheer number of asanas that take shapes of various animals, birds and insects.

Backbends sort of took a backseat with the heatwave conditions we’ve been having the last few weeks. But, the monsoons will soon be here, there are stirrings of those winds. Most mornings I am woken rather early  by the common hawk cuckoo or koels frantically calling. Almost as though they want to hurry up their summer passions before it is time to withdraw. I digress.

Back to backbends, today was prep work with shoulder and sternum opening followed by Salabhasana, Bhujangasana, Dhanurasana and Ek pada Rajkapotasana prep. It was rusty from the word go but the joints and spine feel good. Perhaps, I’ll continue with some supported backbends tomorrow.  

Holiday Practice- Flamingo Inspired

A quick intercity trip meant the chance to see flamingos. The timing though was off but I did manage to see a small group flying in and then feeding. Not the flamboyance I expected but I hope to get a look soon enough. While driving back to Pune, I thought about the birds and thought it might be fun to try out one legged asanas. These birds are stable on one leg for long stretches of time since they are able to lock their ligaments and tendons in their legs. This reduces the muscular effort required and they loaf in the quirky position (for us). There are other birds that do this too but the long legs of the flamingo make it particularly striking.

Image shared by a friend

While the birds may enjoy their snooze on one leg, for humans it is a challenge to spend any significant amount of time in a similar position. It is hard to find both stability and serenity on one leg. The requirement for balance is great and paradoxically, that is the first thing to be lost as one thinks about it. Instead focus on an action, a location, either internal or external, results in balance. Seeking balance is worrying about the future while focus is being here, now and doubts belong to the past.

One of the first one legged poses we learn is Vrikshasana, the tree pose. So, I started and ended with that one after going through all the other one-legged poses that were available to me. It was a study in evaluation more than exploration. The way the left and right side of the body behaves is a classic Goldilocks problem, too much or too little. 🙂 With these kinds of asanas, there are certain days when it is more readily available. I feel steady and there is a lightness while being firm but on others, especially PMS time, it is a struggle. Asanas are truly a living lab. So many factors determine the texture of a pose, internally and externally. Age, physical and mental conditions (short term and long term), weather, state of the world at large etc. It changes how one approaches the asanas too.  

It wasn’t a sequence led practice yesterday, just an assumption of the poses to see what worked and what didn’t. While the initial tendency was to seek balance, soon the awareness shifted to simply the actions and locations. And I see the tremendous value of all standing poses. If I have to look at the asanas from an aesthetic point of view, there is much lacking but the reality is inaccessibility of certain actions/ areas for different reasons. It is like compacted soil, takes time to coax it to soften. But one day, it yields. As I type, I realize that I didn’t factor in the long drives to and fro plus a lack of sufficient sleep. We live and learn.

Notes

Tadasana, Urdhva Hasatasana, Urdhva Baddanguliyasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana, Uttanasana, Supta Padangushtasana 1, 2, Vrikshasana, Ardha Chandrasana, Virabhadrasana 3, Uthita Hasta Padangushtasana, Garudasana, Urdhva Prasarita ek pada Uttanasana, Urdhva Prasarita Ek pada adho mukha Svanasana, Prone akunchanasana, Baddakonasana, Upavishtakonasana, Ardha Badda Padmottanasana, Vrikshasana, Wall Urdhva Prasarita Padasana

Holiday Practice – Supta Virasana

An unexpectedly long day and so a leisurely practice was not possible. Instead it was a Supta sorta evening. Mostly Supta Virasana but cycled through Supta Swastikasana, Supta Badddakonasana, Supta Padangushtasanas as well. A quick 25 minute recharge to get through whatever was left of the day.

Supta Virasana used to be a favourite during my running days. I’ve often dozed off in the pose and woken up to numb limbs. But, I’d have the lightest legs after. It used to be such a relief especially on long run days. And then even Virasana was a struggle. Asanas are transient too. So the necessity for Abhyasa and Vairagya in each anga.