Atha

Subbed a class yesterday. While I was nervous to begin with, once I saw the little boxes with bent elbows and knees, my mind forgot to be nervous and it was simply a matter of transmitting the message of straightness that was required in the limbs during the asanas. The more time I spend in classes, whether as a participant or observer, I am mesmerized by how extensive and intensive the entire system is. What appears simple on the surface is actually fathoms deep. All we see are waves and like children, splash happily on the shore but the giants of the oceans live in its depths.

It is when one looks at asanas with alignment and those without the symmetry and elegance that one begins to see discipline in its external form. Internally, there is more cohesiveness in the entire embodiment. The body, breath and mind lose its scatteredness and come together. But it takes time and a lot of frustration in the early days. And there is really no alternative but to do. Repeatedly until the rigidity is transformed into something malleable through which energy can flow naturally. These were concepts that I comprehended cerebrally but experiencing them happened in its own time.

Over the years, this blog has traced a squiggly path that I’ve found myself on. It has been a witness to progress and setbacks, life altering changes and study. Most of the time, I’ve stopped and marked the passage in some fashion. There were phases when I withdrew and periods of prolificacy, also markers in themselves of the changes along the way. Last night, I was thinking about how my journey in yoga actually began much before I stepped into the class. About 12-13 years ago, there was a period of searching. I found myself reading the epics of this land which provided the stepping stone to picking up the Gita and later the Upanishads. I read and was mesmerized by their sheer poetry. I think my fascination was really the language and its power as the concepts they spoke about were complex even though the words were simple.

All I wished then was to have a Guru, a real one. I was told that I would find one in my late 30s. I did but it was not quite how I imagined. I found my Guru, the year he left his embodiment. His words reached me through his students and disciples, his books and most of all the subjective experience of his teachings. If I had to look at my studentship, it needs more but I’ve made my peace with my pace. There is no goal as such, simply the chipping away. Changes happen over time but what we all have is just what is right in front of us at any moment. It is only when I look back that I see what a wonderful gift it is. I suppose the first word of the first sutra says it best. Atha. No past, no future. Just the infinity of now. Asanas are a way to experience that.

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.    

Bounty of life

An unexpected rest day that was full of things I love. Saturdays are no class days barring some housekeeping for a couple of online ones early in the morning. The rest of it is quite unstructured in general. But today was a little different. I had two commitments, one was a recce meeting and the other a mentoring one. The recce was outdoors for a tree walk I’d be leading next weekend and the mentoring one was an online monthly one with an enthusiastic and earnest group of 3 young women who run an NGO. The morning meet was supposed to be for an hour but while working out my route, I was engrossed in the wonderful world outside.

A gorgeous white siris

In the afternoon, I headed to the trail for a walk but had to abort midway as it was simply too slippery. But since I was out, it was easy to follow my feet and I wandered into a green compound. A long amble and while walking, bits and pieces of Prashantji’s classes kept coming up to the surface. He talks about education in yoga and listening to him addressing students and teachers on the same theme is like a 360⁰ view and immersion at the same time.
He emphasizes exploration in our study. It got me thinking about how we learn as children, as adults.

My beloved trail

As an amateur naturalist, I observe and am curious. There is no baggage of science when I discover something unknown to me. That comes later. And it struck me that it is a child’s process that I employ. It is fun and there are no expectations. There is a constant rearranging of information that is gathered over the years in the face of something new and my head tries to make accomodate it. It is the same in asana too. Learning and relearning.

Ylang ylang vine

Despite the gravity of the subject, Yoga brings sense of child-like wonder and joy. Practice can be playful as well. I’ve never done asanas outdoors but seeing a big metal barrel in the field this evening, I was reminded of Guruji and draped myself over it. The experience was so different. My hands on the wet mud, the vast world upside down and a sense of ease in that bending into the unknown. Quietly exhilarating. Although if it weren’t for the complete isolation of that space, I probably wouldn’t have attempted it. This week was backbends and we did some heavy duty work in class so a supported urdhva Dhanurasana felt good.

Roll Over Urdhva Dhanurasana

At day’s end, I’m glad to have partaken of the marvelous bounty that is life.

Samatvam

Technically, I am doing only one offline class. In the others, I am a student but from an assisting perspective. They are vastly different. I am comfortable in following instructions and adapting to my physical conditions, getting in and out of poses, using props, supporting areas that need help etc. but when it comes to other bodies, the reading from a helper’s perspective is a new one. As an observer, it is easy to simply note but while adjusting, there is technique, skill and agility required. It is a different kind of learning. In the medical class, the method is one of improvisation so there is a whole lot of gear shifting. And then there are online classes, three that I attend besides 2 as a demonstrator. Those are different in the quietness of my home.

I make notes else there is no way to keep track of the progression of classes, the way the theme of one class links to another. They are short ones that I go through before a class to remind myself. I also find myself watching and practising to videos, reading and writing. In short, it is like being in school or college. And I’m loving it. So much so, that other things seem like disturbances. If it weren’t for the need to pay bills and the unavoidable familial and social commitments, I probably would just want to study forever.

Yesterday evening, I was playing the helper’s role in an evening class and as the teacher exhorted the students to “do maximum”, I found myself smiling, remembering how it would feel impossible when she would say that and all that I could hear in my head would be, ‘when will she say, ok come down’ and the relief that would rush through the muscles. I could see that in the students. But at the end, there would be a sense of accomplishment and a spring in my step while leaving. I see that light in others. It is very interesting to observe bodies, they speak quite eloquently. While assisting, some of them resist while others welcome the help. These days, I find myself slowly assuming my place in that hall and providing what is needed, listening and doing. All I have to do is simply listen to the teacher and see if her instructions are being implemented.

While it was a mix of last week and 5th week kind of asanas, if I had to pick a theme, it would be samatvam, evenness. In one of the recent yoga sutra sessions or perhaps it was one of his classes, Srineet mentioned how ‘samatvam yoga uchyate‘ which is used commonly as a definition does not really say it all, Samatvam is more in the nature of a result or effect of yoga. It makes sense to see it both ways. After all, cause and effect are the same, just different manifestations.

Thoughts on Learning

Learning through the week is eclectic with classes ranging from beginners to advanced. Instructions as well as philosophy nuggets also stride this bridge and it is a bit unwieldy as I try to synthesize them. Each class opens the subject so differently! Until last year, it was easier to make sense of a week as there was usually the lens of the weekly format of asana categories. But, now I find it quite unruly for my untrained brain. Imagine a student attending the same subject as an undergrad, post grad or PhD candidate. It requires a shifting of gears as well as consolidation and a judicial application of what one has learned and assimilated. It is a wonderful opportunity though, to observe how the mind pivots to adapt.

Assisting in class has additionally changed how learning happens. There is more sharpness in executing instructions rather than simply doing what I know. It is quite different from being a student and yet one is very keenly a student too. While helping a few people in bolster Setuband Sarvangasana last evening, I was reminded of the same asana in my first year when someone adjusted me. There was an aha moment when the edge of the prop was in the right spot and changed the dynamic of the asana. I saw that same light in the eyes of those who got the right location. Lessons come back to us in different ways.

Learning yogasanas can be achieved in a studio/ class format or in the Guru-shishya Parampara, the latter is much rarer these days. I guess for that system to thrive, there is a level of surrender required of the students that most of us may not be able to muster. Back when it was the norm, the student lived with the teacher in the ashram as part of the household, involved in assisting with the chores and attending to study matters. There is a certain purification in that process, a shedding of layers that prevent receptivity. Guruji learned from Krishnamacharya in that fashion. I don’t know if the likes of me can cope with the rigour in that kind of learning.

Guru-Shishya Parampara has been a theme I’ve been ruminating over especially as one of the books I’m currently reading is based on a student’s rendering and reminiscing of his Guru’s teachings. (Aghora Trilogy). He talks about a teacher who didn’t hesitate to give his students a tough lesson. If one can step away from the viewing the relationship as one of power play, there is actually immense compassion, provided the Guru is authentic. Since a little before Guru Purnima and after, I’ve been thinking about the 24 gurus of Dattatreya and examining my own teachers and Gurus. All the teachers he talks about are part of nature’s expression and he is attentive to the lessons they can teach.

“… I have taken shelter of twenty-four gurus, who are the following: the earth, air, sky, water, fire, moon, sun, pigeon and python; the sea, moth, honeybee, elephant and honey thief; the deer, the fish, the dancing girl Pingala, the kurari bird and the child; the young girl, arrow maker, serpent, spider and wasp…”.  

If I had to think of a key learning from the week, it would be ‘desha‘ as explored through preparing the body for Pranayama. In the opening sutra of the 3rd pada, Patanjali says, “Desa Bandhah Cittasya Dharana” and later proceeds to lay out the different locations for samyama and their effects. At a yogasana level, how do we begin to start looking?

Dwi Hasta Bhujasana

Externally, my appearance is deceptive. It seems like everything is in working order and all is smooth. Reality is a different story. Old injuries and surgeries, structural imbalances and degenerative losses as a result of the natural progression of life mean that from ankles (shredded ligaments) to knees (grade 4 chondromalacia) to humerus surgery (thrice) to cervical spondylosis, there is little that has managed to escape the ravages of life. I’m not going to list age related fading but that too adds up. And yet, the miracle of an embodied existence is that healing occurs, changes happen, range, strength and energy are vitalized.

This morning, I decided to do a recorded lesson although I wasn’t sure how much I might be able to follow with a troubled knee. But, there are modifications and common sense is usually sufficient to know when to stop. It turned out to be a balancings class and I learned how to do Dwi Hasta Bhujasana. It was a first, attempting this asana and it was playful. Enter, fall, enter again, fall again until it happened and then happened repeatedly. Eventually, I could hold the pose for a few breaths. And it was a reminder of how basic asanas are so essential to easy, safe and effortless entry into challenging asanas. And somehow Chaturanga Dandasana also seems to have improved although moving into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana without dropping is still not possible.

As always, a new asana means spending time looking at pictures and reading the books. LOY has a different entry into the pose compared to how we entered it today. Many things have become refined since that seminal volume but the book is a wonderful reference. The images are great to see where to go, how to strike a pose. Asana names are fascinating for me and they make me stay with their sounds and feelings. They make me seek to understand what lies beyond the shape and structure, benefits etc. Indra is the deity said to be residing in the hands and I think perhaps, this is a way to explore by steeping into possibilities of the tattvas until they become apparent. Way back before I joined RIMYI, there was a teacher in the neighbourhood who had introduced some esoteric concepts in the classes I was attending. I was intrigued then but didn’t pursue it, somehow there was a sense of caution that these are strong energy practices that should not be attempted without guidance. But, now I find I want to understand and explore actively.

In all asanas, there is tadasana and savasana like Guruji would say. But, it is quite a journey from standing upright to surrendering to the earth.

Unfolding

I was in Prashantji’s online class today and it was a revelation how he managed to make pawanamuktasana such a powerful asana. I don’t think I will ever see it simply as a release pose or a preparatory one for Supta Padangushtasana.

Post class as I sat to gather my thoughts and reflect on what he spoke about, I thought back about one of his earlier classes which revolved around saucha. Today, there was an exploration on satya as well as the prithvi tattva. His classes are an invitation to explore. They are not to be treated as an asana class in the traditional sense as he opens up multiple interlinked points through the 2 hours. And the thing is, each of them are worth an entire practice hour or two over a long period of time.

RIMYI has been a unfolding for me. Sometimes students argue about wanting to go to the ‘next’ level and I feel they miss the point completely. The more time one spends in those initial years, the more ease there is in the later ones. A certain ripening. I see how my body, mind and breath cooperate better now and often surprise me with an effortless entry into never before attempted poses. Today, I experienced a glimpse of what might have been referred to as breath condition, mind condition and body condition in rope sirsasana. It is a comfortable enough asana to be in as there is no physical effort required. And yet there are shifts in the mind and breath. The fluctuations or vrittis have a visceral expression.

Not really related but when he smiles, he reminds me of Geetaji.

“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.