Why practise?

Despite spending so much time at the institute, I have never practised in the hall, barring a couple of times, pre-pandemic. Practice is a solitary endeavour at home. I suppose it is a bit of shyness at having my struggles out in the open. In a class, I never feel that but practice is such an intimate and private process that I am hesitant. But, I had decided that once the child began college, I didn’t need to rush home and could do at least one practice session a week in the hall. So, today it was. And quite an interesting one. I remember one of Geetaji’s old students telling me that she used to tell all the practitioners to get together and practise but it rarely happened. The household usually takes prime place especially when children are young and/or there are elderly family members. It is a difficult spot. I digress. This post is to make note of a day when I did something different.

I wasn’t quite sure about what to do so started off with Supta Padangushtasana 1 and worked on similar asanas in terms of limb orientation. Practice is like playing with Lego blocks, you make, break, remake, redesign, etc. Long story short, I got a couple of cues from one of the old-time RIMYI teachers that dramatically improved what I was trying to work on. And in the bargain, the action opened up areas that were not accessible. Later I got chatting with a couple of others who were there. I was able to help them and could also request them to give me a hand with some of my asanas. And just like that a couple of hours went by.

While speaking with them, I realised that my learning process is different from theirs. They pursued asanas and had a final pose to show for it while mine was a more circuitous route with a focus on the intermediate actions in them. The downside is I don’t have a final pose very often as I don’t practice many of the advanced poses but when I am ready, the asana sort of happens without too much of a struggle. In some sense, this method is an imprint of one of my teachers. His classes would often be peppered with ‘as intermediate students… ‘ and go on to talk about the stages of moving into a pose, the breath in it etc. His asanas and assists are sheer artistry to watch and experience and therein lies the appeal of yoga as art. As I type, I remember one Punya Thithi where he spoke about his youthful experiences and Guruji giving him a copy of The Art of Yoga

After practice, I was thinking of the process of learning, education, teaching. Why does one learn? How does one learn? How does one learn to learn? Why does one teach? How does one teach? Why the need for education? Many of these spring from the special weekly sessions and simmer in the background. Wednesdays are particularly heavily loaded with classes starting at 7am. There is a lot of input through the multiple classes and training session and medical class. I finally crawl home by 9pm only to speed out of home the next morning at 5:30am. I do get a few hours in the afternoon in which I hop over to a friend’s place and take a snooze. And some days, I have a hearty meal at a nearby cafe. Today, it was Thalipeeth with curd, fresh off the griddle and served with curd and pickle. The owner later got me a small portion of sheera and insisted that I have it. It was a pure ghee and jaggery laden indulgence.

Post demonstrating for the evening class, it struck me once again how yoga has been an organic unfolding for me. If I am asked, why do I practise asana, I have a different reason today. Earlier I would feel it was for physical wellbeing, mental clarity, emotional stability etc. but now it is because when I am on the mat, there is nothing but the action at hand. The world sort of ceases to exist for that spell.

Q& A time

Sunday evening listening to Geetaji answering questions in her inimitable style. Settled into seated asanas to watch brilliance at work.

Witnessing. Such an essential process of learning both for student and teacher. There is a lot of resonance with the current reading of the Kathopanishad. The initial sections make me think about the qualities of studentship. While we all want the best teachers, how many of us want to be deserving students?

A Gem of a Woman

Geetaji’s birth anniversary today.

I remember her voice. I remember her presence in the large hall. I remember her smile, her earnestness, her simplicity. And I miss never having had the good fortune of being under her direct gaze.

I never learned from her but her videos and books teach me, her students teach me. This morning, I attended the usual two classes, an asana one followed by a pranayama session. Later this evening, Abhijata taught a class in her honour. 3000 people from around the world signed in to remember a brilliant teacher. Despite the isolated nature of the webinar, there was a sense of being part of a community united in its love and respect for a gem of a teacher. It was a repeat of a class Geetaji taught in November 2006 and at the end of it, it was amazing how even in a rendition, her words was still so powerful. Not a moment of wavering attention, that’s how strongly she forced you to inhabit the moment in the asana from even beyond the dead.

I remember how devastated I felt when she passed away, it was a loss that felt very personal despite never having directly interacted with her. Two years down the line, the sense of loss is no longer there. She lives in the words of my teachers who faithfully transmit what they learned from her. She herself was the staunchest torch bearer of the Iyengar Yoga tradition.

Lately, I’ve been in a sort of retreat while being in the world. Digitally disconnected in terms of news, social media and even blogging and I got time in swathes. My days have been a fulfilling mix of a little work, yoga, walks and reading. The connectivity provided by the internet while useful has also sucked much out of life and the past few weeks of fullness has had me thinking that I could easily make this my default setting. The woods I frequent have been a wonderful learning ground this past year. I’ve spent many hours walking, absorbing not just the pleasures of fresh air and quiet but also lessons about time, love, silence, joy and what it means to live fully. There is contentment in its simplicity and I find it has seeped into my life too.

This month’s thought says Yoga is to surrender. It is so beautifully linked to last month’s thought of Yoga is Action. Abhyasa and Vairagyam. Asanas and Savasana. Inhale And Exhale. Increasingly I find that maybe there is no need for more words, whether to read or write. All that I need to know is already known.

The house of trikonasana

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

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

Image courtesy: the internet

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

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

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

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

6 cups of coffee in baddakonasana

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

Then (2016)

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

And Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

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.

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

Why do you practise yoga?

I found myself in the library reading transcripts of one of Geetaji’s talks from nearly two decades ago. As always, many gems in there and I wrote down some of them in my book. One of the thoughts that stayed was a question. Why do you practise yoga? If I had to answer for myself, I would say mental clarity, emotional intelligence and perhaps more longingly a chance to experience a spell of being boundless.

It is amazing how much progress has happened with the knee in the last three weeks. All it took was letting the teachers know what I felt. For a long time, I felt that the root of my knee condition lay in the groins and sure enough, I’ve seen a huge turnaround since that day.

It’s a different experience to practise passively, mostly just relaxation and with a lot of assistance. Surrender at multiple levels, to the body’s intelligence, to a teacher’s touch and of the mind’s desire to be doing. Yoga looks very different from a prone position. I suppose when you’re on the ground, you can’t go any lower. Perhaps the last year was about grinding down until I lay face down and stripped the layers of fear. Learning to own up to my life and let that song be heard. It is difficult when you are used to singing alone.

The face of my yoga practice has changed from feeling a lack of availability to acknowledging what is present. The sensitivity of the body is much greater than what it was during days of active asana but I doubted it. How could it be possible for someone so young in yoga to feel that way? I still remain skeptical but there is a tiny voice that tells me that perhaps it is what it is. The ability to experience need not necessarily be related to the length of practice.

Update:

Today’s sutra class was on 1:18 and explored that same boundlessness. It’s unnerving and exhilarating at the same time to find that the experience ‘i’ sought is one that is spoken of in these studies. And as the sutra speaks, transcending even the balance of potential sanskaras, the restraining ones. I can’t help but feel immense gratitude for the opportunity to listen and soak in Prashantji’s words.

Sometimes I wonder if I should write here, and if it isn’t self inflating but then I remember why I started. Perhaps another who begins their journey can see my stumbles and know that it is a journey that is worth it. An offering of gratitude. As Prashantji says, the sadhana is through Shastrasangha, satsangha etc.

This lovely card is a physical expression of an invisible sangha

“Yoga is the word which stands for the whole process and the whole philosophy” – Geeta Iyengar

It’s been a few weeks since Geetaji passed away and I miss her presence in the hall. My eyes roam to the end where she used to sit but that space is taken up by props and the people they support. The energy in there is urgent now, a fire that is constantly stoked to keep the teachings alive. All the teachers pour themselves into the discipline and I can’t help but see how dynamic and organic the process of teaching and learning is. And as I leave, I see the huge picture of Guruji looking into that hall and think all is well.

Hari Om