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.

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.

Coming home

The days are flying and it is all I can manage to make notes and notations before moving on to the next thing on my plate. It’s a full plate and I am grateful for a spectrum of life situations, quite like a thaali, a multi course Indian meal which includes the 6 tastes. Most regions in the country have their versions. Traditionally, these different food items would be served and consumed in a particular order but those practices are mostly lost now. There is always space on the plate for sweet, sour, salty, pungent, astringent and bitter. Life dishes out experiences similarly except that there is no fixed interval or order or volume.

Special days at RIMYI see this lovely statue with a beautiful garland.

In the midst of all these different tastes of life, I had a special one today. The taste of coming home.
It began slowly and without my being very aware of it, the ‘hellos‘ and the ‘how are yous‘ or the odd conversation after class. And then a few weeks ago, thanks to the prodding of a few practitioners, I volunteered to share my experience at the annual day function. Perhaps, it was the brilliant backbends class that day which made me bold to take a step like that. Long story short, I read my piece today, not quite trusting myself to look up and speak.

Later this evening, one of my teachers remarked how important it was for us to tell our stories. Many people go through difficult times alone when they don’t need to. In my head, I’ve always felt that my story wasn’t story enough or my experience sufficient to speak. Add to that dollops of doubt and the ‘impostor syndrome’ and there was a ready recipe to stay on the fringes forever. That’s where I’ve lived all my life, looking from outside in and struggling alone. Learning to ask for help was the big turning point. It still isn’t natural but there is a shift alright.

It is still baby steps in participating and at the moment, feels very much like magic that I am happy and able to appreciate and relish the gifts of music, the outdoors and human connections. I see my teachers and their lives are inspiring in their dynamism. While their days are poured into yoga, they are also present in their personal lives and have fun doing stuff. As students, we forget that essential part of being human- the ability to have fun and laugh. I didn’t know laughter tasted this good.

In gratitude

Flying shoulder stands and some thoughts

Today’s penultimate pose was a sarvangasana, the lightest, tallest one I have ever inhabited. Our teacher said, fly with your trapezius and we flew. All the ‘shoulder surgery‘ we did in class today made for a sarvangasana that was as wide as it was tall, the trunk felt like an open book. The arms and shoulder promise to make their presence known later but that is sweet pain.

I feel a little out of my depth in the Intermediate class, many of the asanas are a challenge mostly because of the knee. The holds are longer in this class and I still have to attain some strength and endurance. I fall over sometimes and come up sooner. The old tendency to find fault is there but there is a little more patience. It is also fascinating to see how much the body can actually move. In one of the parsva salabhasana variations, my teacher came and pulled my arm so easily and had it cross my back. I struggled with moving it and she made it so long. We have far more in us than we think we have, like in running. This asana learning is an energizing one, continuous and fresh everyday. I attend 2 classes- beginners and intermediate. The experience is so different, one assures that there is some proficiency and the other reminds you that you’re a long ways off. It’s a continuum of being student.

Life off the mat has a different quality now. More clarity, more humour and more acceptance. The inevitable conclusion is joy. Sometimes I wonder if it is a phase, this almost euphoric sense of well-being despite the challenges of living. But, it doesn’t seem that way. Not for now atleast. My eyes are wide open and so is my heart. Setbacks are temporary and experienced in the present and then sent their way.

Yoga and running, both were never quite about the body or fitness for me. Even now, with the struggle of the body, it is really about facing myself, fears, flaws, strengths, potential and being able to see them and know that they have their place. It is about being able to fall flat on my face and being able to laugh about it. I used to take myself too seriously, still do but it’s easier to be around people now. I’ve made new friends and feel like part of the community at the institute.

Evening therapy class was interesting. Raya broke down assisting handstands and rope work. It was interesting to see how each person processed the lessons. Although Iyengar yoga appears to be regimented and rigid in sequencing, I’ve had firsthand experience of not following any of the conventional rules when my teachers would work on me. It is like classical Indian music, once there is a certain maturity, the rules can be bent to suit a conscious purpose. The lovely performances are often improvised but this is mastery level and beyond.

As for me, I found myself wondering what right do I have looking at this when I can’t yet do a handstand by myself. I’m probably the only one in all the helpers/ observers/ teachers who cannot do what I guess are basic requirements for someone to be assisting. Anyways, I listen and observe, knowing that I might not retain much but believe that all that wisdom will come back when I am ready. In the meanwhile, I help where required and that takes me out of my doubt and questioning for that period.

Time

My days have been a whirlwind and sleep is in short supply. Work calls for punishing travel schedules these days and I hustle to ensure that yoga days are sacrosanct. Somehow in all this manic activity, I also find it possible to be present in whatever I am doing. This morning, my daughter and I spent a few minutes catching up before school. I hadn’t seen her all day yesterday and the little morning conversation was leisurely and loving. I could both experience and witness it as such not in retrospect but as it unfolded. I was reminded of the sutra that explores the transcendence of time and gunas (4:33). No claim to any such ability😁

I’m learning to carve out time as opportunity presents itself rather than being fixated on a rigid schedule. It’s a change, the ability to adjust, readjust willingly and without resistance. This has allowed me to fit in a few walks in the woods as well as time to read and write. Most of all, it has removed the weight of expectations, leaving my inner house open to welcome every experience as it arises. Life is lighter and there is more laughter. Often, we students are a serious lot and our teacher lightens our faces and bodies with humorous observations. We forget that laughter is a natural state and perhaps if we could laugh like children, spontaneously, much of the weight in our lives would be lightened.A tiny burst of sunshine on the ground, yellow magic

Class was brilliant as always and I learn as my teacher teaches us and the other teachers. It’s beautiful to watch her do both simultaneously without missing anything. At one point a few years ago, I thought I might want to teach but increasingly I find probably not. I’m content to just be there, help out, learn and explore. I still don’t understand how and why I was asked to come to help. I can’t do so many asanas the others can, simplest of which is a sirsasana in the middle. But, I show up and soak all that is around. And I believe that someday that sirsasana will also happen. It has happened for many others before me. So, I attempt in class with the help of others. That much I can do.

Her Life – His Work

December is always a special month in the Iyengar community with Guruji and Geetaji’s birth anniversaries and now her death anniversary as well. It is a time of memories, sweet, aching, happy and above all loving.

Yesterday, many students and teachers shared their memories of Geetaji, her father’s daughter and a gem amongst women. Listening to some of the sharings, I teared up as the compassion they talked about was also one I experienced first hand from the brilliant teachers she mentored. I found myself going back to this day last year and remembering the utter devastation I felt on hearing of her passing away. In a strange way, I felt motherless and was grief stricken. This despite never knowing her personally.

One striking characteristic of everyone in the Iyengar family is childlike innocence and playfulness. It seems in direct contrast to their fierceness but I’ve only seen compassion shining through when they have been tough. The medical classes are perhaps the best place to see Iyengar yoga in all its generosity of spirit. Thanks to the times we live in, we can hear them and see them again and again.

One of the teachers at the institute shared her memories about Geetaji through a heart choked with emotion and in her words I found echoes of my struggle with practice. The same doubts and sense of ‘never being able to do some stuff’. My journey too has been one of fits and starts and seeming stagnation but I still show up with all my shortcomings simply because I believe that this is the way for me. Most of the senior practitioners who seem unflappable and so strong have also had their share of terrible pain and tragedy. I suppose in a way, Iyengar yoga is for those who have suffered greatly and found no solace elsewhere. It is not an easy path to journey and there are no half measures. As Geetaji was know to say, you have to be willing to die.

On Guruji’s birth anniversary, Abhi took one of his sayings and went on to explore what it meant. “When I practise, I am a philosopher. When I teach, I am a scientist. When I demonstrate, I am an artist.” Seemingly different but when you settle into the ideas expressed, it makes perfect sense. They are not separate but facets of the same practice. I like to think of it as parallel to Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram as well as jnana, karma and bhakti margas respectively. Art as understood in the Indian tradition was always about exalting the divine. A classical musician or dancer spends years of sweat and toil learning the basics and techniques under a guru. The maturing of the artiste makes it possible to then move beyond the science and philosophy of the form to create art. Even Brahma needed to create, it is a natural instinct for self expression and in Guruji’s case, it was an expression of the Self.

My head and heart are full with the words and thoughts left by all those who spoke about their experiences. The beautifully choreographed demonstration by some of the practitioners was a delight to watch and if Geetaji were alive, she would have been happy to see the devotion to Guruji that continues to grow. After his passing, she never lost an opportunity to remind us to be true to his legacy and beyond death, her life continues to inspire thousands to be true to the art, science and philosophy of Ashtanga yog. As Pavithra shared, one cannot really separate Geetaji and Guruji. To speak of one is to remember the other too.

There was much that was spoken and it will take a while to let some of those words seep in, especially Prashantji’s almost insistent words about clues left by Guruji on the brain and heart but I still have to attain readiness to even begin to understand it.

In gratitude for Guruji and Geetaji’s life

The dance of life

A couple of years ago, if someone had to ask me to choose between being steeped in yoga and my normal life, I wouldn’t be able to choose the former. Yet, it was always a dream to fulfill once my responsibilities were over.

And then the last year unraveled in ways I hadn’t imagined. Life threw quite a few curveballs in quick succession and forced a complete destruction of all that I held normal. Every single thing. All the yoga classes over the last few months worked with erasing the vestiges of that limited self, forcing me to confront myself. It’s amazing how much we build around the idea of who we are instead of who we actually are. Deeply flawed and potentially divine.

Destruction happens. It’s always happening in nature when leaves turn yellow and fall, creatures die, lava incinerates and tsunamis wash away many lives. Yet, nature creates, not recreates. Even humans. We say rebuild but it’s actually creating from scratch because the old does not exist any longer. That is consumed by time. The Natraj statue in the library was a beautiful representation of that thought.

The angst has passed, some anxiety remains and I find saying No helps, deciding one way or the other helps. Unless I close the door and walk out into the sunshine, I will never be in the light. It is not the way of the world, to drop back and trust that the ground will receive you. But, it is the way of the sutras, of continuous, dedicated abhyasa and vairagyam.

It reminds me of something I learned early – be careful what you wish for, it just may come true. It certainly appears to be the case now and I’m humbled, grateful and a bit unbelieving of my good fortune to study yoga. Sometimes great things are born of terrible pain.

Bending over backwards

Medical class is for 105 minutes. Yesterday, I was in intense backbends for over an hour, amply assisted by teachers. I sweated buckets and tired but the teachers didn’t let up and we had a few laughs about the attention I was getting. Many vipareeta dandasana variations, urdhva dhanurasana, chakra bandasana, setubandhasana etc. and many repeats until I could barely walk.

But, the beauty is the recovery, a swinging sirsasana on the ropes. It was happy. Except for a fleeting thought about fast flowing tears and terrible fear in the same asana a couple of months ago, there was nothing but the air against my face and a sense of joy.

Often, I get asked what my ailment is. I wouldn’t know what to say but now I feel, my ailment is avidya. Ignorance, the foremost of the kleshas, containing the remaining four. So, I go and do what my teacher says even if I wonder how in the world I am going to bend over backwards like in the pictures I am shown. It simply looks impossible. But, I trust her, implicitly and go wherever she sends me. Perhaps, this is also about learning to trust myself again.

I came back home and have been mildly obsessed to find out all about viapreeta dandasana. There is much available about the pose, its execution, its benefits and contraindications. I seek something else but it is hidden from me. Perhaps, someone reading this can share? Yesterday, I came across the words Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram in another context and feel it is a clue to what I seek. Translated, it means truth, auspiciousness and beauty – all of which exists in the backbends.

If I have to explore a little about the three, Satyam would be the inescapable confrontation with one’s own self, black, white and grey. Shivam might be the potential for self- realization and Sundaram would be joy, all of which happen in backbends. That class of asanas has been about moving to the light, walking through darkness and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It has been walking through the gutters of my mind and finally getting out. I am reminded of The Shawshank Redemption where Tim Robbins walks a similar journey.

Am I free? I don’t know. Chances are I will fail again and hopefully rise again. All I do know is that, yoga has the tools and it is possible to endure.

P.S. I seek to learn and would be grateful for ay experiences that you may share.

“Savasan today?”

“Savasan today?”, smiled my teacher as I rose from the pose and all I could say was “Thank you”.

It’s been about three weeks since I began a beginner’s class again and about three months since a savasana at the end of a session. A small transformation experience, shared between teacher and student.

Five years ago, I found my way yet again to a yoga class in my neighbourhood. That’s when my yoga journey really began. Subsequently, I became a student at RIMYI and progressed through the years until a couple of years back when I had to move to a medical class. And in the last three months, it was more of a therapy session for my heart and head as they struggled beneath the weight of the little self. All the asanas that were prescribed in those weeks worked on grinding through the little ego that suffered. That little ego lived in a never ending loop of memory. Guruji says it very simply and beautifully in Light on Life.

We are in our minds, in our memories, in our senses, in the future, eating so that we are in our stomachs, and thinking so that we are in our heads. We are always in one bit or another, but we never occupy all our inheritance. To experience the totality of being is to be in every room of the mansion at once with light streaming out of every window.

My mansion was a dark tunnel and there seemed no way out. All I knew is that if anything could help, it would be yoga. There was a faint sense of embarking on a painful journey but nothing would have prepared me for how difficult it is to confront oneself. Now that some time has elapsed, I can look back and see that in the larger scheme of existence, three months barely shows up, not even a blip. But, in the reference of human time as experienced by the body and mind, it seems unending. It’s been a short while since the shifting began and perhaps it is safe to say that the wheel is turning. There is a fledgling home practice, more reading and a little more light. Every time memory threatens, I remind myself – forward, not behind. Fear and grief belong to memory. Living demands presence in the present, like in asana. Attention to the here and now.

Standing poses today and it was a different experience to work within the limitations of a sensitive knee. Our reference was the pelvic girdle and it was easier to approach the standing poses from that point, kinder on the knee too. Earlier, I did not know where and when to stop. Now, I’m exploring how far to go and when to press pause. It calls for a revision of all asanic memory and finding their space within the context of a changed mind and body. At the end of class, there was fire ignited in the pelvic region, as though there was a revitalization.

Today’s savasana for me was an exploration of pushing beyond memory and allowing space for pause. A baby step in relearning savasana. Not an easy pose but one that I could stay until the end without being overwhelmed by the weight of dead memory. Every time, I shut my eyes in savasana, I would find myself in a mini panic mode and my eyes would fly open. It didn’t happen today.

Reminding myself again of what Guruji says,

A cleansed memory is one that does not contain undigested emotions from the unconscious but that deals with feelings in the present as they arise.

In gratitude

The Art of Yoga

The empty hall is like a stage and the practitioners take their positions and props through that space to different rhythms. Yoga as an art is as evocative as classical Indian dance in its grace, poise and strength. It’s something I have come to appreciate as a practitioner and spectator, the art in this science. It reminds me of the a sentence in the foreword by Yehudi Menuhin, one of my favourite passages.

“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.”

I’ve spent the better part of two years looking at Light on Yoga images on the walls especially the contrast between the grainy black and white pictures and later coloured images. In his later years, Guruji looks still like undisturbed water as against the dynamism of his younger days. The other day, I was in the empty practice hall and thought of the one breath of life that connects all life, past, present and future. How many inhalations and exhalations had this space seen as they emerged and returned to source?

The space I gravitate towards remains the area near the trestle at the prop end, away from the hustle of a full hall. It’s quiet. There is comfort in the solid wood, cold floor and piles of props, all meant to serve bodies and minds that seek to learn, recover and heal. It’s a spartan space, as bare as it was when first constructed and part of the appeal lies in that asceticism. The window looks out to a large creeper that has wound itself around a tree trunk. Sometimes, when it rains, the sound of the water makes for a soothing backdrop. Life finds a way to adapt, survive and thrive.

One of my friends accuses me of being too square, a purist and I think, how can one not be when you see the richness and depth of an unadulterated pursuit? Every art demands obedience for a long, dedicated period before being ready to break rules, to create work which has enduring appeal. Yoga as practised by Guruji has that timeless quality and it continues in the living legacy of his students and their students.