“Yoga is experiencing innocence”

Yoga is experiencing innocence.” That’s the line for July and since a couple of days, it has been a thought flowing below the surface. I dip into it now and then, staying with the sound and shape of the word, the meaning as I understand it and how it might be interpreted. Being conscious of a thought like this also allows me to see how life expresses it in my day to day.

Innocence is commonly associated with children and quite appropriately so. I like to think of it as a state of freedom from fear, just the way children are fearless. They learn fear as they experience pain, shame, guilt and so on. So, in a way, I suppose one could consider it as the blank slate on which experience is layered. So, how is Yoga experiencing innocence? The first thought that comes to mind are a couple of lines in the Foreword from Light on Yoga.

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

“Yoga, as practiced by Mr. Iyengar, is the dedicated votive offering of a man who brings himself to the altar, alone and clean in body and mind, focused in attention and will, offering in simplicity and innocence not a burnt sacrifice, but simply himself raised to his own highest potential.”

One of the qualities I notice in many of the teachers is a quality of child-likeness. It doesn’t imply that they are naive just that there is a sincerity and earnestness in expressing. No need for maintaining a separateness and it is clearly evident as they get on their mats during practice time along with the others. Innocence can also be a freedom from doubt, perhaps. It is visible in the curiosity in learning, I’ve seen it firsthand when Geetaji would speak or Prashantji speaks. The word could be considered a ‘not knowing’ as opposed to ignorance, I suppose and as such allows for an open mind.

In my enthusiasm, I signed for one too many classes and have been getting my backside whipped thoroughly. My progress in asana has been slow right from the start. It has taken me longer than what it takes others due to many reasons. I used to be harsh with myself for not gaining proficiency faster but a few injuries and a little more living has helped me see that the pace at which I learn will always be unique to the underlying conditions of my mind and body.

Today was standing poses and while the legs didn’t take much of a beating, my hands were troublesome. I suspect it is some soft tissue injury, it has been a niggling area since pre lockdown. I find relief in Ardha Sirsasana with blocks against my back. There’s also relief when I lie down with a brick against my upper back. Twists aggravate it. It’s better when there is expansion as well as a length in the torso.

No matter how much time I spend in the standing poses, I enjoy the fact that there is always something new to learn, some new way to challenge the mind and body. At the end of class, I realized that despite doing all the actions as instructed by the teacher, I missed many of the nuances, I was still on the gross movements. So, while externally, I followed instructions, my mind missed catching all the words, it picked up on the familiar ones and the movements were sort of on autopilot. How difficult it is to be truly present!

The beauty of the instructions we receive lies in its clarity and economy. Economy sounds contradictory considering that there is almost a barrage of instructions but the verbosity is mostly repetition. Many of us students are almost immobile and the repetition is to ensure everyone is on the same page. The key for me has been to listen beyond the set of actions to the analogies and see how they can be expressed in the body. Most of them are from every day, some from Guruji and Geetaji but they add a freshness to the experience of the pose. This makes every class a brand new one even though we work with almost the same set of poses. I guess that’s what gets most of us coming back time and again, the innocence of asanas.

Practitioner vs. Sadhaka

It’s been a month since I’ve been attending virtual classes and they’ve settled into a nice rhythm, providing an anchor to the week. It has the rigour of a physical class but with a little extra caution since each of us students have to be responsible for our own safety in the confines of our homes. I’m glad this avenue exists to continue learning but I also miss many things about a regular class.

I miss the hard wooden props like the Vipareeta Dandasana bench, the trestle as well as the ceiling ropes, grills and the like. I miss the callouses on my palms from the ropes. I miss the call and response of the invocation, there is an energy to the whole class reciting together which is absent in this format. I miss the silence and air in the large hall during practice, the noise of props being moved during therapy class and most of all the hands on assistance that would often teach in leaps. Perhaps, not very yoga worthy to miss things but it is how I feel. RIMYI is home.

Studying like this has been a more introspective and slower way of practice for me. I find myself working with breaking down asana actions into regions, currently it is the upper back. There is hesitation in some of the inversions and back bends, the easy familiarity with them has become distant with a summer practice of less energetic poses. This morning, it was like playing lego with lots of books and a few bricks to find that upper back action and some back bends. It’s so easy to slide but the body also remembers and comes back with a little nudging. Despite the rustiness, I see a natural progression.

Last week one of the classes had some prep work for pranayama and I found heaviness and resistance. I asked my teacher about it later and he recommended using the support of a prop. So, I played with bricks, bolsters, a combination of bolsters and blankets and found that bricks work best for me now, maybe something else will later. It was the same earlier too, the hard wooden props reassure me more than the softness of bolsters. Maybe it is a preference for the edge of a little discomfort?

Lately, I’ve been re-reading the Core of the Yoga Sutras, it’s a beautifully nuanced rendering of the Yoga Sutras in an interlinked manner. Yesterday, I was reading the chapter on Sadhana Krama – Method of Practice.

The second sentence, ‘Sadhaka must be a skilled and accomplished practitioner of sadhana’, made me pause and think about the name of this blog, anonymous sadhaka and how it is not entirely appropriate if I had to follow the definition! Practitioner would be more like it.

Guruji speaks about four aspects of Sadhanaśodhana, śosana, śobhana, śamana and ties it in with Sadhana Kriya of Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishwara Pranidhana culminating in bhakti.

Sadhana demands an investigating and examining mind if the action is to purify (śodhana). Dessication and absorption (śosana) are needed to remove the body’s defects and for an auspicious presentation (śobhana). When the effortful efforts transform into an effortlessness state then one experiences the calm and soothing state of śamana.

These are juxtaposed with the kosas and nature of sadhana as bahiranga, antaranga and antaratman. Therein I find the beauty of these texts, layers upon layers, at once a progression and a composite. Finally, he ties up the chapter by enumerating the pillars of sadhana – Sraddha, Virya, Smrti, Samadhi Prajna in Sutra 1.20 – Practice must be pursued with trust, confidence, vigour, keen memory and power of absorption to break this spiritual complacency.

Last week, I was invited to be part of an event that was celebrating the achievements of that organization. It got me thinking about how different it is from asana practice. there are no annual celebrations or milestone markers. Sometimes there is thrill of getting into a pose that was unattainable earlier but it is momentary and there is no specific outcome save the process. Again, I found myself asking myself, why do I practice? It is for the sake of practice, I never know what the mat brings me, both while on it and after.

Having limited work has meant more time for asana practice and plenty of outdoors, especially long ambles in the woods. The world outside continues to burn in more ways than one- environmental disasters, natural calamities and human cruelty alongside a pandemic that continues to run its course. Life is uncertain, always has been just that this time around it has been a collective experiencing of the same. At some point, this page will turn and it may be for the better or worse, it is hard to say considering how much we’ve battered ourselves as a species as well as the planet we call home. All that we have is the number of breaths we will take here and maybe that can be in the spirit of an offering.

In gratitude for the blessings of yoga

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Asana practice is a bit like playing with lego. Build, unbuild, rebuild. Repeat.

Aparigraha in a pandemic

Guruji was born during an influenza epidemic and his life was a difficult one for many decades. Even his early yoga journey was fraught with pain and hardship. He lived through pre-Independence India, poverty, ill health, loss, fame and prosperity. The one constant through it all was yoga and his sadhana went on to make him a household name. Despite all the accolades, he remained a student of the subject till the very end. Yoga was him and he was yoga. Period. For the likes of me, it is not as complete an immersion but we try to the best of our life situations.

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This morning I spent time with Pada 2 of the sutras and came back to 2.39 on aparigraha. Reflecting on it, I saw that it was basically talking about de-conditioning.

Quoting from the commentary in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,

Aparigraha means not only non-possession and non-acceptance of gifts, but also freedom from rigidity of thought. Holding on to one’s thoughts is also a form of possessiveness, and thoughts, as well as material possessions should be shunned. Otherwise they leave strong impressions on the consciousness and become seeds to manifest in future lives.”

Aparigraha is the subtlest aspect of yama, and difficult to master. Yet, repeated attempts must be made to gain pure knowledge of ‘what I am’ and ‘what I am meant for’.”

Constant inquiry is an integral part of learning yoga at RIMYI, it’s always dynamic and evolving. Never static and despite the curriculum remaining the same, the approach and teaching incorporate new elements. In a more personal context, I am reminded of what my teacher said about ‘seeds of weeds’. By working beyond just the apparent relief of body and heart, there was a reset in established patterns of thought and behaviour, a rewiring. That the mind can be addressed through the body is now internalized knowledge and not just theoretical.

It’s easy to get caught in fixed ways of thinking and feeling both on and off the mat and this clinging on prevents one from a deeper understanding of any situation. I also see it in asana as I explore beyond the actions required to assume a pose. As long as I am just repeating the instructions I have learned, I limit myself. Of course, the initial repetition is essential to internalize the method but the unfolding is in the personalizing of its interpretation. A bit like improvisation in music. Once you learn the notes and practise the scales for a suitable length of time, you can break the rules to explore and then the subject begins to also teach you.

I still remain cautious in asana but there’s an experimental feel to it as I correlate lessons from class and home practice. This week both the classes worked actively with the groin area and today’s home practice was a passive exploration of the same region from my knee therapy routine. And it taught differently. It got me thinking about how right from day 1 of a beginner’s class, the body is systematically prepared to open to its fullest capacity, literally and figuratively. Strangely, I found the beginner’s class harder than the intermediate one and it made me glad that I chose to retain the former. I guess I’m probably always going to remain a chronic beginner.

Asanas take up a small part of my day and its lessons are not about the body’s ability or progress as much as it is about mental, emotional and spiritual stretching. It is about endurance, resilience, patience, fortitude, good humour, playfulness, compassion and a whole host of other traits that allow us to live through good times and rough times with the same steadiness. These times are despairing with both a pandemic and mindless human violence. But there also exists solidarity and kindness that unite people even in these uncertain days. It may seem unbearable at the moment but all periods of transformation are difficult, individually and collectively. Eventually, we see that old ways have to evolve and adapt to meet the changing needs of a present and it calls for aparigraha. Now more so than ever.

De-conditioning

Five years ago, I was a new student at RIMYI, excited and nervous. Prior to applying, I scoured the internet to understand more about what I could expect as a beginner and found that there was very little for a rookie. Most of the material was written by those who had been practicing for a long time, many of them senior teachers in the system. It was also interesting to note that there was more material by international practitioners than by Indian ones. Five years since then, I’ve been a regular student at the Institute and still feel the same excitement at the start of a new academic year. It seems a bit surreal to have a virtual session considering how much physical adjustments have been an essential part of learning and therapy. And uncannily, the thought for June from last year’s calendar is ‘Yoga is deconditioning’.

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RIMYI shut down early March and the break from a teacher led learning forced me to pay more attention to exploring rather than just practicing. Most days, there would be some kind of a general direction be it standing poses, or forward extensions etc. But lately, it became exploration of a class of bodily regions like the groins in say Supta Padangushtasana 2 and Ardha Chandrasana. The actions themselves have begun to be less forceful and aggressive and softer in the nature of a curious watching. In the bargain, I find that I move further in the pose with less effort. I spend less time overall but it feels more intense.

Up until last year, I felt like Eklavya (here’s an earlier post) on the fringes of class, never reaching out or being part of the community. I stayed deep inside my limited self, terribly tongue-tied and hesitant to ask for help or answers. That began to change slowly although I still tended to lurk in the shadows at the back. But my teachers drew me out and I started to learn to loosen up.

In the last five years, my body went through different phases of fitness, injury, rehabilitation and health. Along the way, I discovered pride, arrogance, impatience, fragility, willingness, resilience and a host of other traits, some useful, others not so desirable. I’m not a hardcore practitioner and there are days I skip because of a day going unruly or then plain procrastination but not for too long. However, there was a time I was incapable of getting on the mat for days. It’s no longer guilt over not practicing but a need to set right the mind that brings me back to work with the body. Yoga is forgiving that way. No matter how long one is away, there is always a renewal and muscle memory is quick to activate.

The sutras enumerate the 9 obstacles and 4 distractions and also provide a choice of techniques to address them. But I was too far gone at one point to help myself through their use provided in the subsequent sutras (1.34-1.39). All I did was surrender completely to my teachers and go where they sent me. In retrospect, it was a single deep rooted surrender to this age old science and art. I believed if anything could help me navigate the difficult spaces of my life, it would be yoga. It’s been more than half a year since then and I’m still just about discovering bits and pieces of what happened during those terribly painful sessions. I’ve been revisiting some of my notes from then and it seems like another life. I remember my rough days simply to remind myself to be gentle with others, especially in these times. And so it circles back to my favourite sutra, 1.33.

This morning’s class was such a different one, from the home of my teacher to the homes of all of us students. We worked with basic asanas but in Iyengar yoga fashion, explored them differently, some of them not really asanas as much as a variation of possible movements till a tipping point, literally and figuratively. The Zoom avatar of class is an internal one, devoid of any performative aspect that shows up in a hall full of people. It feels almost like an individual class with just the teacher’s video on screen. In a way, it is a guided self-practice than a class, more inward looking with fewer distractions.

In the confines of my room or out in the woods, I can shut the madly careening world out. There’s much distress out there. As I type, there’s a cyclone making its way to the west coast of this country, one of the worst afflicted as far as the pandemic is concerned. We’ve already had Cyclon Amphan wreak its wrath on the east coast and locusts in the northwest besides the terrible plight of migrant workers trudging home in the most punishing of seasons. Halfway around the world, ignorance and deep rooted biases destroy lives alongside a virus. And through all this Mother Nature continues to adjust and reset indifferent to the fears and anxieties of her human children.

Personally, some of my life plans have had to be indefinitely postponed but there is a calm acceptance of a changed reality. It has also helped me re-calibrate my life to retain what really matters. I remain incredibly grateful for the privilege of safe shelter, food on the table, a stable mind and the ability to provide for my family. Guruji’s words ‘Live happily, Die majestically’ are even more relevant than ever with the awareness of the fragility and uncertainty of life. And as my teacher said today we can’t defeat the virus, we can try to dodge it as best as we can. Simple food, good rest and good exercise is pretty much all that we need, the rest has been non-essential as a 10 week lockdown has shown us.

Synesthesia of learning?

I find that in self-study of any sort, not just asana, the process of learning is largely invisible and in small packets spread over a period of time and across different spaces of our lives. They remain scattered until the body and mind are prepared to synthesize all of it into an organic whole.

The month of May threw up small pieces that spoke of space and harmony. One of the first was an article in the Yoga Rahasya on Symmetry and Space (Vol. 24, No.4 , 2017). Another was the view from my balcony floor while lying down and looking at the sky. Yet another was the toiling that happened on my mat and the reading that would come after. A large chunk also lay in the outdoors with the trees, stones, birds, flowers and so on and an interesting bit was in a colouring sheet my daughter made me fill up.

Last evening, towards the end of my practice, I came to Karnapidasana and it was a whole different experience. I tend to be wary of the pose because of pressure on the neck. Last night though, the pose was effortless and I experienced a shutting down of the ears and an opening of my eyes. Not like the opening of the eyes in backbends but almost as though there was an inner set of eyes that opened. A seeing without seeing and time didn’t exist. Maybe that’s what made it feel like I could stay in the pose forever. Despite the compressed nature of the asana, it didn’t feel that way at all.

After practice, I looked the asana up in books and on the internet to see if there was anything other than the technique or benefits of the asana. Geetaji’s Gem For Women mentions that it makes one turn inward but beyond that I wasn’t able to find anything. But, the pose caught my attention for its association with the ear, the word ‘pida’ and the theme of space which was running through the days. And this morning, I worked with a slightly different set of asanas before attempting Karnapidasana again. This time there was resistance. I was trying to replicate yesterday’s lesson without being open to what today wanted to teach.

The sensation yesterday reminded me of an experience a few years ago when I saw sound, not the form of it. Synesthesia, a fleeting experience in savasana. I wonder what is the connection between the ears and eyes? Is there one or am I imagining it? Is it stubbornness to want to connect the dots that appear through moments in life and make sense? I don’t know. But the theme of space and all the words that tie in with space, be it sound or silence have been cropping everywhere. In asana, we are taught to create space in the body. The skies rest in space, the stars and the moon too. It has been contemplative sorts of days lately, one of being brutally honest with myself, breaking patterns, facing fears. This is different compared to earlier when the process worked from body to mind a few months ago.

Sharing a few lines from the same Yoga Rahasya mentioned earlier

With asanas come penetration

With penetration comes sensitivity

With sensitivity comes intelligence

With intelligence comes wisdom

With wisdom comes harmony

With harmony comes stillness.

Paschimottanasana Study

The prashnayantra prompt today suggested paschimottanasana and that became my exploration for practice. It’s been a mildly restless few days of the head and heart and the pose seemed just right to bring calm and energy. So, it progressed to be a meditation on the mat for the next hour or so. Thanks to youtube, I listened to Geetaji’s instructions as well as Guruji’s and it was a much quieter pose than usual. Less tug of war between the body and mind. As a practice session, I was looking at learning and so, it was about finding actions that happened automatically and how to bring restraint in them. Many repeats. Some propping with a rope and belt. And staying for a little more than usual.

Later, I looked up the pose in Light on Yoga and Yoga – A Gem for Women as also some notes I had saved to refresh my memory. The physical benefits were to do with resting the heart and improving blood supply to the organs in the abdominal and pelvic regions. It is said to bring vitality and a balanced outlook towards sex. The asana also goes by the names Brahmacharyasana and Ugrasana, connoting self-restraint and power. I find that names of asanas are a good way to carry forward contemplating their qualities beyond the mat.

Guruji says, “A good stay in this pose massages the heart, the spinal column and the abdominal organs which feel refreshed and the mind is rested.” It is interesting how this pose covers the triad of emotional, intellectual and digestive aspects of the body which are responsible for good health and vigour and as a result confers a rested mind and refreshed body.

Geetaji’s book recalls the Hatha Yoga Pradipika 1.29, “Paschimottanasana is the foremost of all asanas. Its effect is that the life force flows through the very intricate channels called nadis, gastric fire is kindled and the stomach becomes free of all diseases.”

She goes on to say that the effect of this asana on the mind is magical: an upset, irritated, and restless mind becomes tranquil, and angry, passionate moods etc. are calmed down. It sharpens memory and brings clarity of thought. The latter qualities are essential for studentship and found resonance with my morning reading* which explored the qualities of a student – self-control in outward life and calmness in inner living.

During the course of the day, I watched a short film on a prolific Indian photographer, Raghu Rai. His pictures are incredibly evocative and have the same quality of stillness and dynamism of Guruji’s poses. The overriding sense I got was his pictures were really a drawing in of his lens into himself before releasing it. A complete presence. In the photographer’s words, ‘dekhna is darshana’ (to see is to have darshan) and I saw yoga in his living craft. I suppose when one brings that spirit of enquiry to one’s subject of study, there is also a certain prolificacy.

The day has come to an end and I find that I wasn’t restless today and my mind was calm. Overall, there was a very quiet sense of detachment in its hours, a lightness of being.

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Paschimottanasana WIP

*Taittiriya Upanishad Ch 1, Section 4

Bridge over troubled times

2019 is long over but the calendar from last year still hangs where I see it up close. My eyes stray to it multiple times in the course of the day and as the month progresses, my viewing also gets adjusted. It inspires enquiry and experimentation. Often, more questions are raised than discovering of answers. I suppose that is the process of svadhyaya.

Somehow, seeing the asana everyday makes it seep into its practice too. I find myself cueing what I observe. It’s a different learning in the absence of a class. No oral instructions, just watching a still image and finding out for oneself. On one of my other blogs, someone mentioned the word tattolna and it probably explains this seeking. An exploration, a seeking , a searching for oneself.

Before Vipareeta Dandasana became my favourite pose, Setu Bandha Sarvangasana held that place. Of course, not very yogic in being attached to an asana but then I’m not a yogi :). It would be the one I chose when given an option between any of the cooling inversions. Almost always, propped. Besides the bolster, brick, bench versions, there was one with the bench and a large square cushion which was a completely different experience. I learned to fill my breath in that one with P. She would ask me to reach her palm with my sternum as I inhaled and eventually, my sunken despairing heart began to open.

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana is often called Bridge pose but Light on Yoga mentions it as construction of bridge pose. It implies a movement. Classically entered from Sarvangasana, it makes sense. It also goes by Uttana Mayurasana or stretched peacock. In either name, there is an implied movement of stretching. One of the insistent images is that of the bridge to Lanka in the Ramayana and Hanuman’s leap across the sea. Intense and stretched.

Today, I took a picture of myself in the pose to share with a friend who was trying it as well. Later, I placed it alongside Guruji’s image from the calendar and saw an entire universe of a difference. It’s a good way to see and correct when there is no teacher to walk one through the finer details.

The world outside spins in lockdown which will continue for the next two weeks. We’ve been in this state for long enough to have it become the new normal. Post lockdown, whenever that happens, I still see myself living this kind of a life for the foreseeable future. Except for the financial implications of work, this minimal way of life has been one of a rich inner landscape. I avoid the news and check on updates every couple of days. Instead, there is much watching the skies, doing whatever little I can at work and volunteering. Meals are simple and readings are varied books. There is also a lavishing of time on my craft and I try to put something as an offering as often as I can. While the current state of the planet is one of fear and isolation, there is acceptance and a continuation of doing whatever one can. And that helps keep my world on an even keel. Eventually, this too will be in the past and the bridge would be complete.

Last month’s thought was ‘Yoga is equanimity’ and it has been an endeavour to keep that idea through the month. May says, ‘Yoga is harmony’ to the accompaniment of Setu Bandha Sarvangasana so that is the meditation through this month. Last year Pavithra mentioned that she had done this as an exercise and I thought it was a beautiful way of keeping yoga alive through the day. So an attempt even if the calendar be one year old.

The song of the mountain

Tadasana is the first asana in the repertoire of yogasanas. Deceptively simple looking and often glossed over as an opening pose, the mountain pose does not have the glamour of backbends or the elegance of forward extensions. Yet, it has been a fascinating study for me since I began my journey in yoga. Every time, I spend a significant amount of time in the asana at a stretch, it reveals more of its wakefulness.

A couple of nights ago, I listened to a lovely concert, Songs of the Himalayas. It was inspired by the composer’s trek in the mountains and the stories he collected along the way, mostly of the simplicity and wisdom of its people. The musicians were brilliant and it was altogether a lovely immersive meditation of sorts. This morning my practice revolved around tadasana and I was reminded of the motif of the mountains. A mountain stands, it breathes, it is alive. Perhaps, not in the sense that we are taught to look at it as rock and soil but as part of a cosmos that we still don’t fully comprehend.

Our bodies are said to be a microcosm of the macrocosm and it makes sense from a yogic lens. The elemental nature of the body and mind mimics what is outside of us too. Mountains are usually elder structures, old ascensions into the heavens and have their unique shapes, structures and peculiarities. When stable, they remain standing without any change for years. Their shifts happen with a shift in energies of the earth. Perhaps the imagery of a volcano can represent the flow of energy of its structre, Of course, it is uncontrolled in an eruption but controlled in asana.

Geetaji talks about the adho mukhi and urdhva mukhi nature of energy flows, the downward and upward flow of energy. While I’ve experienced that in different asanas to different degrees, today I found myself studying it from the point of view of a mountain to understand how it works within the confines of my mind and body. While the essence of a mountain remains elevation, there is also the corresponding descent of its outer slopes. If the inner lift happens against gravity, the outer relaxation happens with it.

Tadasana instructions are usually staccato like in their delivery.

Feet together. Suck the knee caps up. Tuck the stomach in, buttocks in. Roll the shoulders behind and down, hand extending downwards. Become tall.

As one progresses in practice, there are nuances added and these can go really deep. The only thing that becomes apparent as I spend more time in this pose is that vast tracts of body and mind remain out of reach. On the outside the asanas are better looking but internally, there are deserts of silence. It’s a slow progression, or perhaps a progressing slowly as physical prowess gives way to a more detached viewing. One of curiosity and experimentation.

One of my teachers used to say if there is only one asana that you can perfect, let it be tadasana and I am beginning to see why. Often, the pose is used as an analogy for the sthirtha or steadiness required in any other asana. Over time, I have seen how arm work brings better leg stability and today was a learning in how the inner arm can bring the quietness of the outer leg. Result was strength and lightness in arms and a grounding so solid of the soles. Tadasana is really a whole body scan.

Home practice has been good but today, I missed my teacher and wished I could hear her clear voice and laughter. I missed helping out in the medical classes, I missed working in the library and I missed the fledgling sense of community I had begun to experience at the institute. While the lock down has been a period of acceptance with a fairly balanced head and heart, the prospect of an extended one has found me yearning for beloved RIMYI. Deeply.

Pictures taken before lock down – the windows in the first image are ones I’ve looked out of many times and the RIMYI library is a favourite place. It’s probably where I’d be headed out to first when we are allowed to move out. 

Inverted Introverted

Inversions and backbends changed my life. I might even dare to say that they transformed my living. These two groups of asanas were pretty much the only ones I worked with a few months ago and eventually there was a reset that happened in my head and heart. Initially I thought it was a probably a short lived effect that would wear off as therapy classes came to an end and a couple of regular ones took its place but so far, it’s been a daily reset, a blank slate every day.

Being upside down and bending backward so far that I couldn’t help but surrender to the unknown bestowed gifts of vulnerability without fear, a wide open heart and joy. These days, Sirsasana and Sarvangasana are usually the twin heartbeats of my home practice. They can be playful too like when I stand on my head on a work call. It felt like I was channeling Mr. Menuhin who conducted Beethoven’s 5th in Sirsasana. 🙂

About Sirsasana, Guruji writes, “Regular and precise practice of Sirsasana develops the body, disciplines the mind and widens the horizons of the spirit. One becomes balanced and self-reliant in pain and pleasure, loss and gain, shame and fame and defeat and victory.”
And about Sarvangasana, he says, “It is no over-statement to say that if a person regularly practises Sarvangasana he will feel new vigour and strength, and will be happy and confident. New life will flow into him, his mind will be at peace and he will feel the joy of life.”

Most days I practise in the mornings. It usually begins with a rope Adho Mukha Svanasana and then moves on to whatever might be the areas I want to explore. Sometimes it is just maintenance of movement and at others it is about control. At still other times it is to study connections between distant parts of the body. I’m not sure if I am imagining these call and response sort of actions or if they are real but I observe them as they arise and trust the process of svadhyaya to reveal the answers.

Learning to come down from Sirsasana with both legs

The last few days were about sweat. Sirsasana usually feels the tiniest bit lopsided and I’ve noticed that the sweating would be predominantly on one side of the head and neck. Lately, it seems more evenly distributed. The pose feels stable too at multiple levels. In addition to asana practice, I’ve also been dabbling in a little bit of prep work for handstands which has probably helped in stronger shoulders and better access. This too is a change, to experiment with other ways and methods.

Many years ago, I didn’t think that I could ever do a headstand due to cervical spondylosis. But five years later, it is a regular asana. Backbends seemed impossible, some of them still do but there is enough sureness about the ‘atha’ of practice. This yoga journey has been slow, asana proficiency and ability slower but what has emerged from all of it has been an increased sense of the first sutra. Maybe that is what gives stability and dynamism to accept and continue a changed way of life in these uncertain times of a pandemic. I may or may not be able to do a Mandalasana but the effort on my mat today is all that matters. And if experience is any indicator, the pose happens eventually when you are not actively seeking it.

Over the past few weeks of lockdown I can see progress by virtue of a regular practice. There are tentative forays into drop-backs that are encouraging. The beauty of Iyengar yoga is how the learnings become available to you in a drip fashion, sometimes years after first encountering them. I do miss the exhilaration of a taught class but this is a different flavour of learning. I guess all the classes we’ve had so far helped to get us to this point where even if we never got to attend a class, we can continue our studies in a deep way. And maybe that is the way we are meant to learn, heuristically. Why practice? At a very gross level, it keeps my body machinery in working order. More importantly, it provides equanimity.

There is a lovely image of Guruji holding Abhijata’s knees in Dwipada Vipareeta Dandasana with the caption, Yoga is equanimity in last year’s calendar. It is a pose that has seen me heave sobs and also filled me with light. These days, it is usually unsupported or with the wall to learn how to lift. Mostly, the yogi’s prostration has kept the slate clean for this sadhaka allowing her the ability to see the humour of her follies and acknowledge small victories with the same welcome. It is a beloved asana, one that brings the best of inversions and backbends in one energizing and calming pose.

In my readings, I recently finished the Aitareya Upanishad once again and it was a fresh seeing of the text. The subject matter of the text is creation and as always, the lyricism in it is magical. The Upanishadic delivery is one of love between teacher and taught, intimacy and spontaneity, stability and dynamism. Not too different from Iyengar yoga. Many students bristle at the no-nonsense and strict delivery of teaching. As for me, I’ve only ever seen their compassion and love. I can still hear their clear voices and laughter when I am on my mat.

We are fairly resilient as a species, innovative as well. And this Covid-19 pandemic will pass one day like the ones before. Nothing lasts forever- not happiness, not sorrow, not even life. I suppose at the end of the day what matters is endeavour, regardless of the fruit of labour.

Sometimes it is difficult to muster up the will to do anything at all. I have been in that place too and had to learn to ask for help. And that made all the difference. Giving help is much easier but one does a disservice by not asking for it, to oneself as well as the giver. A few months go, a real estate agent told me that it was important to receive as much as it was to give. I didn’t end up needing his services and now feel that the encounter was just to hear a lesson I had to learn.

Master class with Geetaji

In this new world order of physical distancing, a home practice brings more than just a sense of physical well being, it gifts the philosophy of yog as a guide to navigate a new normal. At the moment, the world is practicing social distancing, a self-imposed isolation to check and slow the spread of a pandemic. Time on the mat is also like that, a retreat into the body and mind to check and slow the fluctuations of the vrittis.

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Just my trusty old mat and me

Practice at home has mostly been the usual set of asanas with plenty of propping but today was a master class with Geetaji that did not use any props. Seated asanas, seated twists, standing poses and standing twists wrapped up with a Setuband Sarvangasana (this one was propped, 2 bricks for me). It was working with just the foundational Dandasana, Tadasana and Uthita Hasta Padasana but with detailed actions across the entire body. I haven’t used this video in at least a couple of years or more since the knee injury.

The tasting of this lesson was different at many levels. On one hand, there was better understanding of how to interpret and adjust instructions to safeguard my knee and work with my alignment issues. On the other, there was greater access to hitherto inaccessible areas. Perhaps it is greater mobility and strength in the spine thanks to deep backbends that conditioned it. It was also interesting to see how she taught, both in an instructional manner as well as in the form of an invitation to learn independently. Often, one gets instructions not teaching.

As a novice student, I struggled when a neighbourhood teacher would say, bring your front thighs back. Fast forward a few years and one finds that there is a natural progression to working less aggressively and with more compassion. Actions are subtler and have a quality of integration across the planes of the body. Asanas that seemed wildly impossible have effortlessly made their way into a regular practice. Of course, it still is a struggle with Trikonasana but the nature of the struggle has changed. The me from 5 years ago would have imagined today’s Trikonasana to be impossible while today’s me can see how much is still thick and dull. Always a work in progress. If you’re struggling as a new practitioner, I’d only say, show up and do whatever you can, eventually the tree takes root. Like one of my teachers would say, if you can’t do a full practice, just do one Adho Mukha Svanasana for 1 minute everyday.

The highlight today was beloved Tadasana and the incredible lift of the arches and that imprint stayed long after I got off the mat. Some gems that exploded into awareness today were the experience of standing on the metatarsals, the crown of the big toes and the power of the hips to bring steady balance in the Parivritta movements. The nemesis pose was Supta Tadasana, the floor does not lie about unevenness. 🙂

Thanks to technology, Geetaji’s keen knowledge and experience resound much beyond her life and allow us to have a glimpse of the ocean that is yog.