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.

Limitless

Prashantji’s classes are like an arc. It’s not a class in the sense that one is used to but more in the nature of a tasting followed by long cooking of precepts and principles. Asana time is barely half an hour in a 120 minute session but it is not easy by any means. And yet, the few asanas that I experienced were an unfolding. Despite no sequencing, no ‘warm up’ or staccato instructions of skeleton-muscular adjustments, there was a quietness and longevity of asanas by skilful use of breath and mind. I also see why some years need to pass to be able to develop sensitivity or perhaps I am simply slow to grasp.  

During one of the sessions, he spoke about practising in such a way today that we can practice in the future too. It resonated quite loudly with me. Just a few days ago, I was thinking about how I spent over 2 years in therapy class for my knees. All I did was mostly prone or supine asanas which eventually made it possible for me to be pain free and walk long, sit cross legged etc. It also prepared me for loss and losing, age and ageing and most of all to treat all of life as a preparation for dying well.

On the very first day of the session, he asked us to consider what the basics of Iyengar yoga meant. The first thought that sprung up was that it was to “live happily and die majestically” as Guruji said. Most of us are conditioned to say alignment, precision, sequencing but those are simply the starting point or building blocks. The magic starts when you deconstruct the ‘rules’, break them and start teaching yourself, learning yourself. Yoga is heuristic after all. After a period of time, there is an intuitive intelligence of the embodiment that adjusts organically if you can get the rigidity of the mind’s conditioning out of the way.  

Today’s session was a continuation of what may be viewed as a weaving of the ‘Strands of Body, Mind and Breath’. I couldn’t help but think of the strands of sattva, rajas and tamas through the very life force of the universe. Both- limitless. These sessions are like a tasting, an invitation to sip and make mental notes and bodily imprints. The class today was a kind of opening into understanding the intense transformational period many months ago. I have tasted the biochemistry of asanas although I do not know the hows and whys of it.

Prashantji began the class talking about exploring the chemical changes of asanas and how to approach them. The more time I spend as a practitioner of yoga (and I don’t mean asana alone, it also includes other sadhanas outside of the mat), the more comfortable I get with staying with not knowing. It allows for a receiving which is given as a benediction. This week has been fascinating and I’m looking forward to going back to the basics yet again and seeing them through a different lens. Somewhere, the desire for asana proficiency has been replaced by asana curiosity and in the bargain, I’ve begun to see the limitlessness despite our constraints. As a runner, I had too much to lose and then I lost it. As a yoga practitioner, even if I lose everything, there will still be Savasana as long as there is breath in the body.  

Last week in one of my regular classes, we approached malasana through different routes and it was again that same touch of limitlessness. Malasana is a beautiful pose, named after the garland it resembles. Floral garlands are an intrinsic part of Indian rituals and traditions, from weddings to pujas to inaugurations and felicitations. In traditional Indian weddings, there is an exchange of var malas. The garlands themselves range from simple to elaborate ones but their place in the ceremony remains similar. The act of garlanding is a mutual one, a receiving as well as a giving. Old stories speak about swayamvara where a woman chose her partner and indicated her choice by garlanding the suitor. Now, the exchange is a mutual one signifying acceptance of each other as life partners.

Taking possession of a new vehicle is often accompanied by the breaking of a coconut and a garland on the car. Deities are worshipped with malas, usually of flowers said to be dear to them. The entrance of houses are decorated with torans, especially during festivals and special guests are honoured with a flower garland.

In a way, the act of garlanding is a deeply mindful one of acknowledging the other and their part in our lives. In order to complete the circuit, there’s also a corresponding receiving of the offering. I suppose it is simply mimicking the endless cycles in nature, a continuous reciprocal acting. That class had malasana and its different scents through various forward extensions. While there is a certain proficiency in some of the asanas at a beginner level, there is also the awareness that asana practice is a continuum. As I stretch and find resistance in the body or unwillingness, I see corresponding holding back of the mind. I see how the breath and thought process in those situations are similar in life off the mat. There is acknowledgement of working within the constraints of bodily limitations and walking the tightrope of pushing forward and holding back. It’s interesting to see how some ‘difficult’ asanas are easier than the easy ones, the continuum of practice is a shifting one.

The beauty of this art is that there is never an end to its learning and discovering the limitlessness of the embodiment’s capability. Body, mind and consciousness stretching into infinity or compressing into nothingness. Both exist simultaneously. In the final malasana of that morning, there was an experience of that garlanding, equal parts giving and receiving. One of the shifts that has happened has been a receiving of where I am right now, whether capability or capacity. An ‘all is well’ regardless of the challenges that have been cropping up and they have been many and unrelenting. There has been displacement of routine thanks to some crazy amount of time on the road but despite that, I’ve managed to unroll my mat and join the sessions. One of the blessings of a pandemic has been access to classes regardless of where one might be.

Time and Time again

I decided to do the 18th week sequence from the Preliminary course book but come Virabhadrasana 3, a challenging pose for me, I paused. I looked up Light on Yoga, Yoga – A gem for Women and then a video on youtube and saw one of Kofi Busia teaching the pose. I didn’t take the same action since I saw that my problem child lay much more closer to the ground. I needed more of a lift especially in the left foot so rolled a belt and put it under the arch. Such a shift in stability. My knee got sorted, the snappy straightening of the leg didn’t happen and there was much more firmness in the leg not just while entering the pose but also exiting it. Usually, my ankles are dancing. An aha moment and one I tried in Trikonasana and Prasarita Padottanasana. The sequence went to toss as I explored the arches. It was a sharp zooming in and working piece meal. Post the session, I can still feel that steadiness. Skill versus power as Kofi Busia mentioned.

Feet First

And then I thought about how it always comes back to the feet, the foundation of our bipedal existence. In Virabhadrasana 3, the mind is already far ahead in the future, thinking about balancing. It’s a good pose to study Atha Yoganusasanam, which was my morning reading and reflection. It’s such a beautiful way to begin an exposition. An invitation to discard the baggage of the past and the uncertainty of the future to simply act in the present. In this moment, I have free will and agency. I can choose which way to move, I can choose to change a set pattern, I can choose to break free or I can choose to continue in established behaviours.

The beauty of ‘atha’ lies in its ever freshness. It is forever eternal because it only exists now. A couple of days ago, I was listening to a podcast on homeostasis. It is a condition where the body is maintained at a certain optimum condition internally. It is not a static state but an ever dynamic one, adjusting constantly for changing environments, external and internal. The various systems of the body kick in to function as an integrated whole and each and every cell is involved. Asanas are also like that, dynamic in their stillness. For an apparently quiet sirsasana, there are many cogs in the wheel working to maintain that steady stillness. Someone like Guruji had extreme consciousness of each and every cell of his body.

Beyond the microcosm of the human embodiment, the universe too remains in the constant flux of the gunas. The penultimate sutra states “As the mutations of the gunas cease to function, time, the uninterrupted movement of moments, stops. This deconstruction of the flow of time is comprehensible only at this final stage of emancipation.” Time has been a theme running through this year. Between time on the mat and time in the woods, there was a recalibrating that happened rather organically. A minute became just a minute, an hour just an hour and the ability to be in the present increased while the feeling of being overwhelmed with tasks disappeared. I suppose part of it also had to do with getting off the internet as a source of news, entertainment and distraction. In a very unrefined, gross sort of a way, this change in how I used technology allowed a peek into the possibility of finding time’s true measure. The last couple of months without digital noise has made it possible to listen without distractions.

In the woods, I look at the trees and see how they grow ever so slowly, no rush whatsoever and there is no hankering after becoming. It’s simply a being in that time. Some years the flowering and fruiting is not as much, some years it is profuse. There is disease, decay and death but no sense of finiteness in the forest. All that dies simply becomes part of the forest and takes a different form, it releases the pressure of having to achieve something. I’ve been experiencing something like that. I still work, I still have to meet deadlines and have chores etc but they’ve all settled into an easy pace. Surprisingly, I find that I pack far more into my day, have better outcomes and yet feel like I have a lot of leisure time. And all this with good humour and a smile. I’ve also probably retreated further more into myself but it doesn’t feel closed in rather as though I am standing in an open field of light.

Coming back to practice today, the attention to the arches were a going back to basics. I still attend beginners classes and intend to do so until I am kicked out of it. I find that stepping back a few paces and working on those initial adjustments with some time under my belt gives me a better understanding. I work just as hard in those sessions as I do in the Intermediate ones. Yesterday’s classes were standing back arches and we prepped with some seated ones. The same preparatory poses had made me feel acidic a few months ago but this time, nothing. And I could trace the change back to simply learning to quieten the abdominal region. And that was learned while sitting straight but with a soft belly for invocation. Softness. Our brains, hearts are soft and yet they power our entire existence. Without them we wouldn’t exist regardless of the firm bones and muscles. Off the mat too, it is the same. Skill more than brute strength. Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam

The last week was intense. In addition to the regular classes, I also made it to the 2020 Yoganusanam classes held by the Belur trust. This is the first time for me and I was reminded of the very first time I watched as an observer 5 years ago. Geetaji’s commanding voice, the 1000 odd people rising into the poses as one and the entire stadium held in an unbroken stream of concentration. Back then, I was interested in the sequences, technicalities of the asanas but it’s changed in terms of focus now. I listen to glean clues about how Guruji and Geetaji might have practiced, how their lives on and off the mat had the same dynamism and stillness. Ultimately asanas are also a prop.

Covid-19 changed many things and in the context of yoga, made the practice of asanas a very indrawn one even while learning online. No doubt, it’s been a more physical practice but the fruits have been in intellectual clarity, mental steadiness and emotional stability. This year has probably seen me on the mat almost daily compared to the previous years and it has borne fruit to the extent of my efforts, perhaps a little more than that. At year’s end, I find that the reflections on the thought for the month helped me learn to bring my attention to a single idea and allow that to be the substratum of my daily living to the best of my awareness and ability.

The next year, I’d like to stay with just one thought, ‘Guruji’. Actually, it is already active. My year started with his birth anniversary. Perhaps, simply keeping that one thought in mind, I may be able to let a flavour of his sadhana percolate into my life as a student of yoga.

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.

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.

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.

The house of trikonasana

Despite the intensity and frequency of the classes I’ve been attending, there was a plateau of sorts. It was a continuous labouring while the magic was missing. These phases are common in learning and have always led to some brilliant aha moments. This time around they were aha days beginning with a class last week. Subsequent days have been like a breakthrough with different actions coming together.

It began with a brick in one of the classes that awakened the mind and body to bring all the actions that were being taught into one unit as a whole. From the crown of the head to the toes, each area was jogged into wakefulness separately over the days and somehow they started to sort of work together simultaneously too. Of course, it remains a very, very preliminary coming together but the sense of the cogs working in unison is there. Much of the awareness be it limb or spine has been thanks to simple props like the brick, belt or wall. Amongst the props, I prefer the hard wooden blocks and benches for their ability to give clarity. I enjoy the imprint they leave long after the practice is over. The wall while seemingly a support is a tough teacher.

Image courtesy: the internet

Today’s practice, actually play, was completely spontaneous and not a repetition of anything I’ve learned in class. Just a freewheeling with bricks and the wall. End result was a (what I thought) good looking trikonasana. Post practice, I looked at Guruji’s image in the pose, watched the 26 minutes trikonasana teaching by Geetaji and read from The Alpha and Omega of Trikonasana.

I’m reasonably satisfied with the presentation today but even before comparing my picture to see the improvements required, I noticed areas that were not fully engaged. Studying the asana against Guruji’s image sharpened that understanding while Geetaji’s instructions reminded me of some of the actions that needed to be kept in mind. Finally, the book put the pose in perspective by helping me see the rungs of the ladders in studying an asana. Staying with the imagery of bricks and working with bricks brought to mind the traditional methods and tools of masons. There’s a centrality, evenness and wholeness in a well executed structure, just like what is sought in asana.

Why bother with such attention to detail? Why bother with such rigour when it is essentially just a pose held for a brief time? How does working towards perfecting Trikonasana make a difference in my life or that of anyone else? Every once in a while, I ask myself the why of what I do in the different spaces of my life. The base answer usually remains the same but I do discover aspects of myself as new layers get uncovered. In the case of asana, one answer would be that I want a good savasana experience, that’s where I experience fruition of asana. Another would be that I would like to improve my staying capacity and alignment in sirsasana. The answer that doesn’t usually crop up is that I work hard to develop persistence, courage, equanimity, resilience, compassion, joy, good humour etc. but that is the real why. Those attitudes are the building blocks of living well, keeping the house of one’s life standing firm, come stillness or storm.

I’m keenly aware that sometimes the tempests of illness, injury, loss etc. can be terrifying and houses collapse, people crumple. I too have experienced that bewilderment of loss, literally and metaphorically. It seems impossible to get on the mat or sift through the debris. But brick by brick, a house comes to stand again, doors open, sunshine enters through its windows. Space is created, in the body and the heart.

6 cups of coffee in baddakonasana

There used to be a time I was proud of my ability to sit in a baddakonasana, padmasana etc.. I had pride too, in the ability to go to sleep in supta virasana. Those were the days I was running long distance and these asanas were part of my everyday. Naturally, the body adapted and the flexibility improved. But, I was also attached to what I thought was good looking poses. 🙂

Then (2016)

Now, a few years and more than a few knocks later, I am relearning these asanas, cautiously. The sweet spot lies somewhere between fear and aggression. Doing, observing, pushing through or retreating- all of these while questioning myself if the actions spring from attachment or detachment, from pride or a spirit of enquiry.

And Now

It took me a while to come back to the mat with the regularity I have now. It also took me a long time to come back to textual studies in a more regular manner. The pandemic has proved to be an opportunity as well in the tracts of time it has created with reduced travel. Personally while I have lost work, I have gained much with an asana practice and study. It has seen me remain mostly energetic and positive.

This morning during practice, I listened to one of Geetaji’s videos from an Italian convention on YouTube. (Here’s the link). As a coffee fiend, it made me chuckle when she suggested having 6 cups of coffee in baddakonasana even as I attempted the action she was suggesting. She has a wicked sense of humour but it is often restrained, so to see her enjoying her joke was rather delightful.

While reflecting about practice and my state of mind now, I find myself comparing it against last year. The desolation I experienced then is similar to what I see in many people now. My mind was in shambles then and trying to work with the mind didn’t help things too much. I would slide back into what seemed like an endless quicksand. Asanas worked on my mind through my body. Something changed at a very intrinsic level, maybe some chemistry in the brain, I do not know. All I know that the rewiring changed completely. Practising through the pandemic has nourished my mind and kept it reasonably clear. It also made it possible for me to get myself out of the way and serve others.

Asanas make me reflect, not just on body parts or actions but also on similarities of approach and withdrawal to situations in my life. If I had to summarize asana or situations in life, it might be to say be present, do the best you can and the pose will arrange itself. Life is unpredictable, there could be injury, loss, debilitation or a pandemic but through the practice of asana, there is a courage to meet its unpredictability. There comes an ability to receive all of it without resistance. Striving on the mat involves resistance but is never resisting. There are aha moments when after working with resistance, a region suddenly bursts open into consciousness. It is a received experience.

A few days ago, while exchanging emails with a dear friend, I was reminded of a ready reckoner of the texts that I was working on some years back. Some part of it was complete but there is much that is pending, so its back to old practices that I lost when I lost my way. I do feel a regular asana practice brings back good habits quite organically, almost effortlessly. It slowly increases your ability to do much more than what you think you can do.

These times are a time out in many ways. Much of the world has retreated into itself and so there is also less distraction. Might not be a bad idea to sit on the mat in baddakonasana with 6 cups of coffee. Maybe 6 is too much, I’ll take one. 🙂

Joy in Asana

Most mornings begin really early as I attend class at 6 am thrice a week. It’s a good start to the day and I find that despite the online format, they are still quite tough. Partly, because we spend a lot of time in the intermediate stages of the asanas, work with the body in pieces and also that Intermediate 1 and 2 batches are together. So, it’s a little more demanding that a regular Intermediate 1 class. Additionally, it’s less than a year of a normal class for me. Although there is better range in the knee and the leg feels stronger, I do have limitations. But it is significantly better than what it used to be. Overall, the body feels aligned and the thickness in the right quadriceps no longer appears even when the class is intense. Virasana has slowly started to make short appearances. Maybe, I’ve also learned how to adjust the effort in both limbs differently?

I look at my knees and see how they are better placed. During the days when I used to be belted up and in passive poses, it seemed like nothing would ever change. I would lie on the floor and just watch other bodies or the pictures of Guruji on the walls and wonder if the knees could really be fixed. The rods and bricks and belts would prick the body but I found comfort in their unrelenting hardness. They worked silently but surely. Now, when I see the legs, it is almost like I’ve been sculpted a new pair! They stand straighter and the dent in the outer knee has reduced. I expected to be pain free with yoga but wasn’t really expecting structural changes of this magnitude. I thought it was too late for my body to be realigned. But, this first-hand experience tells me that change is possible, perhaps at any age. The degree may vary but it is possible. The body truly is a remarkable piece of engineering and we don’t quite understand all its mysteries. I’m not sure how one might measure these changes in the manner of scientific experiments but experientially, one can feel it.

Thanks to stronger legs, I am once again able to walk long and far, enjoying the goodness of nature.

We’re back to another severe lock down in Pune as the cases have spiked. Thankfully, class continues online and it is good to be able to continue learning from our teachers. The remote nature of this kind of learning is good as it forces me to work differently. Pause when the body needs, modify as I have to as well as push when there is scope to move further. It is no less intense even though we work with fewer asanas and the more basic ones. I see the skillfulness of the teaching as instructions are adjusted to account for different spaces and provide ample opportunity to explore household items as props. But mostly, we work with the body, the very first prop as Guruji would say. As the days pass, it feels as though new regions in the body are getting awake. I learn to isolate smaller sections and feel life in them. It is hard work and some days the body is tired. But, once that touch of life happens, it becomes internalized.

I find myself asking how does the learning get internalized? Many of the actions have corrected themselves, they are not automatic but the pose is assumed with consideration without really having to think too hard. Almost as though the pose name fluidly positions the body parts. Like the angular back foot or rotation of the hip in parsvottanasana. It used to be a struggle to adjust that but now the leg assumes the position as though unconsciously but at the same time there is an awareness of the space and shape it occupies. The last week has been many such lessons, discovering largish areas like the trifecta of glutes, hips and hamstrings as well as more focused ones like the armpit region or the tailbone. It is a fabulous example of masterful teaching that the teachers can make us students experience the in-habitation of all these different locations.

For a while, I had lost the wonder in the experience of asana and I am glad that it is once again joyful in its toil, in its learning. If anyone reading this is in a spot where they find it difficult to practise in the current pandemic, all I can say is that it is alright if you are unable to do anything. Asana comes back. I lost everything for a long while but then yoga found me again. Stay in touch in whatever way possible, maybe it’s listening to a talk, maybe it is attending an online class or reading the literature or perhaps talking with a yoga friend. Sometimes, we just need to ride the storm and eventually the ground stabilizes under our feet.

In gratitude