Guruji was a force, whose presence breathed energy into those he came in contact with. He lived and taught in a time when yoga was not a multi billion dollar industry. Almost a century after his life, yoga is ubiquitous and there is more than enough information about asanas, anatomy and physiology, pranayama, philosophy etc. that is widely available. It is a mass product and packaged as such. In the context of these times, his teachings blaze even brighter through the legacy of those who lived and learned directly from him. Yoga beyond asana and pranayama, what Prashantji speaks of as essential yog or classical yog.
We are lucky to live in this millennium when such wisdom is also available for those who may be so inclined. I remember an event at the institute when he shared an incident from his life. As students of teachers who have been with Guruji over decades and especially in his last years, there is a rich, distilled ocean of wisdom and we benefit from that generosity. His sadhana was one of such rigour and tenacity that it paved an easier way for us. In the course of sifting through material, I look at pictures of Guruji in various moments of his life and am struck by his incredible joy, sheer elegance and artistry, softness and vitality. Truly a giant.
RIMYI follows an academic calendar from June to April. May is simply too hot for class. Usually, I’d feel mildly bereft but this year, I have been looking forward to this month. The last couple of years has been packed with classes and the last one in particular was intense with the additional commitments. So, this time off from structured class has been much needed.
Today’s practice was meant to be inversions but had to abandon it midway as the body was uncooperative. But, it was good as the enquiry into a shaky Ardha Chandrasana found me in Garudasana. There was no conscious sequence followed, it was more of play and exploration. Long story short, Garudasana was what I needed to practise. Inversions didn’t get thrown out completely though. I did end up in Sarvangasana that was tall, steady and comfortable. Even the Ek pada Sarvangasana had leftover imprints of the earlier pose.
While in Garudasana, I thought about the name as I was getting into the pose and that changed the texture of the asana. Simply invoking the idea of the bird invoked power, stability, control and an effortlessness. A mythical bird that features in the epics, it belongs to the raptor family like kites and eagles and epitomize elegance. It is a pleasure to watch them in the sky, whether they’re riding the thermals or swooping down. They embody power and effortless grace in their control and speed. Rupa, Lavanya, Balam.
The sutra says, रूपलावण्यबलवज्रसंहननत्वानि कायसंपत् . Guruji’s translation reads, ‘Perfection of the body consists of beauty of form, grace, strength, compactness, and the hardness and brilliance of a diamond’. In most of the commentaries, there is barely anything on this sutra. The Garuda Purana though has a lovely section (15) that unpacks the body, physical and esoteric. It provides a tidy account of the human embodiment which points to the way in which the body can be made fit for yoga. It is paradoxical at times how much the study of the body is really a study of the self beyond the confines of matter.
Practice is like a walk, you never quite know what you will discover. No matter how the body and mind behave, there is something revealed. I’ve been in a bit of a slump on the professional front. Part of the perils of working independently. But, these times also provide an opportunity for immersion in things that bring a sense of contentment and fulfilment. Practice, the written word, walks, trees and skies. Somehow, I find it harder to do work which does not sync with the rest of my life and that makes it a very narrow road to walk. Some days like today are a complete surrender to the Guru, the subject and silence. The answers will come, they usually do.
It has been long since I wrote a blog post. Correction. I wrote many but shifted it into my notes instead. Perhaps, it was a sense of sharing that happened within a physically virtual world rather than reflections broadcast to an invisible world. But when I go back to the reasons for beginning this web notebook, I feel the need to document the ongoing unfolding.
Every year, I have a word. 2021’s word was Guruji. At the beginning of the year, I read a lot about his life, experiences of other people etc. and it was evident that most of them had covered his life from sickly teenager to yogacharya extensively. I thought I could make my own notes and as the year progressed found myself pivoting time and time again to what Prashantji mentions, ‘Iyengar’s yoga’. At year’s end, I see how that word shaped a lot of my everyday living. The word ‘Guruji’ became my reference point of responses to life situations.
2021 continued to be a pandemic year and one of many unexpected changes in my personal life. There was travel, closures and new beginnings and an overall ease even in stressful situations. If there has to be one significant discovery, it was that I found how to make time elastic. I have my teachers to thank for this change. Asanas are wonderful props to make acquaintance with oneself. I learned to stay in uncomfortable situations and watch thoughts and emotions rise and respond with ease. There was space for decisions to be made without reacting. This was possible as the ‘softness and firmness’ one of my teachers speaks about seeped into my day off the mat. And that translated to being able to make time.
One of the lovely things that happened to me through the year was the opportunity to demonstrate for one of the teachers in the online classes for beginners. These twice-a-week sessions have been such an immersion. Without fail, I log in 20 minutes before to set up and chat with P. She is a generous teacher, loved to bits by all her students. The regulars show up class after class and in the odd moments that I see them do their asanas, I see how there is joy, vigour and eagerness. I’ve loved beginner classes all along and participating in one like this has been a gift.
It was a full year of online classes and through the course of the months, I found myself at ease in asanas I had never attempted before while I lost some asanas to physical conditions. Both were simply observations. This freedom happened as I learned to soften the belly and brain. I got glimpses of the vast spaces inside as well as the darkness that exists in much of my body and mind. I was able to experience the energy that my teachers spoke about. I received glimpses of the touch of breath in pranayama. It remains very much a rudimentary learning of the alphabet. But, it is progress nevertheless and endlessly fascinating.
Over the years, I see how it appears that this system is all about sequence, asanas as solutions to problems, precision etc. but that is missing the forest for the trees. As the pandemic continues, I see how Iyengar yoga is many fruits, many fruitings according to the inherent tendencies of its practitioners and teachers. As for me, I remain a devoted student of the subject but find that perhaps calling it Iyengar yoga is limiting. It is yog, as Guruji says. Staying with his thought and reading about him, his works, listening to his family and students through the year that passed taught me patience. In situations of distress or doubt, it was easier to pause and consider how he may have made his choices. More often than not, the answer sprung from Sutra 1.33, one of my favourites.
Despite the pandemic making life more virtual, mine became less so. The first year of pandemic saw a lot of connection via technology while the second one saw more time spent in the company of trees and a few people. I am grateful to have this space to share and receive even if it has been an erratic presence. It’s been about 7 years since the beginning of this blog and in some sense, it is probably no longer a space that answers some of the questions that I had as a beginner. But, it remains a space to put markers like a reminder that the word for this year is ‘slow’.
Six years ago, when I started this blog, it was simply with the purpose of documenting a beginner’s experience of Iyengar yoga. Six years hence, looking back, I see that it is more a navigation through the lens of yoga viewed through multiple perspectives of time and space. It hasn’t been about asana techniques or benefits but more an exploration of the different pathways that appear at different points in time.
It has been a while since I posted here. In the last three months, I spent a fair bit of time on the road before settling into the lockdown necessitated by a devastating second wave of the pandemic. This time around, the losses were closer home with friends, extended family and acquaintances falling ill and, in some cases, passing away. Besides the tumult outside, there were matters closer home that needed attention. Through all this, there remained a steadiness of mind and heart, with the ability to stay with uncomfortable emotions. Time on the mat and classes have been a constant through these last few months.
The 2019 calendar still hangs in my room and the thought of the month is something that still continues to percolate through my days. The month’s image is Guruji in setuband sarvangasana and the thought is ‘Yoga is harmony’. How can we experience harmony when there is so much suffering in the world outside? In the context of a pandemic, how do we live in harmony with a virus? Where can one find harmony in a situation of attacks and counter attacks? How can we remain in harmony when confronted with the devastation wreaked by forces of nature?
And yet, when I slip into the woods or step on my mat, there exists nothing but harmony. I watch the change of seasons, the rise and fall of new growth, the damage wreaked by storms, the weight of dead and decaying matter and there is balance. On the mat too there is the harmony of learning and unlearning, ability and inability, laziness and endeavour, resistance and acceptance. I find myself experiencing a beginner’s floundering once again as I wait for the actions and experiences that the teachers want us to experience. It comes in flashes just like the early days of asana. With time, some classes remind me of earlier classes and something from the early years makes sense. I recognize ease in ‘striking the pose’ as Prashantji says. There is a seamless coming together of different parts of the body to assume the asana, stay in it and dissolve it at its end.
At day’s end, it does feel like there has been harmony. The various elements of living both within and without have found their space without striking any incongruence. Prashantji’s classes this month have been way above my current ability. His use of language is quirky and can seem excessive at times but the more time I spend with his words, it seems like he is opening different doors to the same view. The pace is really rapid in terms of the subtleties he explains and I simply surrender to not knowing. It will come eventually when the body, mind and breath are ‘cultured’ enough. That word has stayed with me since the morning’s reading from his book, Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali. Asanas are for spiritual culturing. What does it mean to be cultured? That is definitely subject matter for long exploration.
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.
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.
Savasana was a longish stay today and after an almost leisurely class, the stay in it felt like I did not exist, save for a section of the torso that had the movement of breath. I did not have a sense of the rest of my body, it was like there was nothing there, no limbs. Soon after, my teacher parts class with “Go beyond the structure of savasana” and that explained my experience.
I see another transitioning, from ebullience in backbending to dynamic stillness in it. The immediate image that comes to mind is one of Guruji in an urdhva dhanurasana against the platform. Eventually, I suppose it would become even quieter where one might be able to go beyond the structure of the asana.
Notes from practice, classes etc are pointless against the actual experiencing. The last 2 or 3 months, I’ve stayed away from making notes and instead let the body make its own.
The thought for October reads, Yoga is the art of living. As I mentioned in the last post, the more I stay with these monthly contemplations, it becomes increasingly evident how difficult the simple statements are. As the month commenced, it also struck me how thoughtfully the thoughts were arranged in a progression through the months. Before I looked at next month’s thought, I was musing over how the art of living is one of integration which is nothing but karma yoga. And as Krishna says, action without the expectations of its fruits, abhyasa and vairagya are the twin heartbeats of a seeker. I took the calendar down and listed down all the statements and I see how their sequencing is a bit like sequencing in asanas and the teaching of the same.
December 2018 – Yoga is being eternally contemporary
January 2019 – Yoga is awareness
February 2019 – Yoga is purity
March 2019 – Yoga is sensitivity
April 2019 – Yoga is equanimity
May 2019 – Yoga is harmony
June 2019 – Yoga is deconditioning
July 2019 – Yoga is experiencing innocence
August 2019 – Yoga is compassion
September 2019 – Yoga is integration
October 2019 – Yoga is the art of living
November 2019 – Yoga is action
December 2019 – Yoga is to surrender
Yoga as the art of living is really an invitation to be alive. It us an invitation to fully inhabit our embodiment. In the foreword to Light on Yoga, Menuhin talks about it being each and every time a living act. That little opening is a favourite and one I’ve read so many times that it comes unbidden. What does it mean to live? What does it mean to live as a human being? I suppose these are questions that are continuously answered every single moment as we range the spectrum of tendencies from divine to demonic. At day’s end, when I reflect on the activities, actions, words and thoughts, I often notice how things could be handled better. Increasingly, I also notice how I’ve learned to respond differently although it is easy to slip into the unthinking comfort of habit.
The last couple of practice sessions were frustrating and I realized that I had crept towards outcome and not effort. It’s also a gentle reminder that a post 40 body is different. As a woman, there are the monthly ebbs and flows of menstruation along with the ageing that begins to accelerate. Add existing injury or degeneration and the mix is one that needs a balanced handling. Not too little, not too much but always pushing the edge of possibility. I suppose when I think about the art of living, it is really the art of effortless effort, prayatna shaithilyatha. One of my teachers used a lovely analogy in Uttanasana. He asked us to imagine Thakur (from Sholay) doing the pose. (Thakur doesn’t have hands) Often, we tug and pull to reach the chin to the shin but the elegance of the body dropping in surrender to the ground is a beauty to watch as well as experience. There is no attachment, simply a surrender. As I type, I again see how the thoughts of the months have been so beautifully linked like a sutra.
Integration to the art of living to action to surrender.
August’s thought was one that I was conscious about every single day. This one was a tough one to stay with, it threw up many false notions about myself. The degree of compassion often only extends to where my ideas and beliefs are not at odds.
Compassion means being able to pause, reflect and respond.
Compassion means listening completely, including silences.
Compassion means a deep sense of oneness, it cannot exist in separateness.
Compassion means being of service, not being attached.
Compassion is easier with people outside of your immediate family where the opportunity for friction is less.
Just a placeholder post while I let this thought linger.
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.
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.
It’s Guru Pournima today, the day we honour our gurus. In a pre-pandemic world, there would have been a 90-120 minutes programme that would include a talk or two as well as the release of the quarterly magazine and other books. The large hall would fill up quickly with both local and international students and one of the teachers would urge us to shift further in and towards the front to accommodate everyone. These occasions would see old students from out of town as well, a time for communal gratitude. That degree of bodily proximity though is a scary thought in today’s scenario. This year, the hall will remain empty while a talk by Prashant Iyengar will be beamed out via the internet.
I’m not familiar with Hindu rituals and traditions and hence have no understanding of what is done and the little that I have gathered is from seeing, listening and reading about it. I do find meaning in symbolism though, it is useful as an aid to staying with a thought, cooking it and letting it release its essence. There is a story in the Bhagwata Purana where King Yadu is told about the 24 gurus: earth, air, sky, water, fire, moon, sun, pigeon, python, sea, moth, honeybee, elephant and honey thief, deer, fish, the prostitute Pingala, the kurara bird, the child, young girl, arrow maker, serpent, spider and wasp. In classic Purana style, each of these is used to convey a moral and an exhortation for the seeker. Traditionally, one was supposed to memorize everything before the guru would begin to explain. In a sense, memorization would be preparing the field. I’ve found that as a method or technique, repetition can be a good teacher. It starts to reveal nuances much before one actually commences study. Perhaps it is the energy of sound that seeps in as a kind of intuitive sensing.
Guruji touched millions of lives, directly and indirectly through his life, his books and his teachers. I never had the privilege of studying from him but the teachers who teach me did and I receive his wisdom through their devotion to him. He lived a householder’s life while remaining a detached yogi, in itself unusual. He experienced the struggles of living in the world of familial responsibilities and ill health, discrimination and poverty. He knew human frailties first hand and through it continued with his sadhana and blazed a path for those coming after him. He lived through all the stages of life without shunning anything.
Personally, I feel Guru is a grace bestowed, one has to be deserving. I struggle with the concept of bhakti. There was a time when it happened but I lost it somewhere during a most difficult time and that overflowing hasn’t come back. There is a slow return to the practices that had built up over time and I hope that eventually I will be graced with that same sense of surety. Yesterday, the page opened to the chapter 9 in the Gita and my first instinct was to change it but decided to stay with the thought instead. I like to think of these random instances as being a way of life to nudge us towards what I most need to learn.
If you are unable to fix your mind upon Me, then by the ‘YOGA of constant practice,’ seek to reach Me, O Dhananjaya.
(BG – 12.9)
It has echoes in the Yoga Sutra, 1.14 and the use of Dhananjaya to address Arjuna is also significant in the implied fruits of such a constant practice. Like the divine charioteer was to Arjuna, Guruji is to his students, past, present and future.