Word of the year

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.

One of the unexpected gifts of 2021- Niño who came into our lives one November evening.

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’.

“Art of Yoga is difficult, not impossible” – B.K.S. Iyengar

Guruji’s punya thithi is always marked with a program by the Institute, this year was no different. The first couple of years were still a little shaky as his old students struggled to find their anchor. These days, the sense of his presence is unshakeable when they speak of him. Except Prashantji, I suppose. He’s always been the stoic one, exhorting us to learn what Guruji was always trying to teach. Not Iyengar yoga, but yog.

A backbencher’s perspective

There will never be another B.K.S. Iyengar or a Swami Vivekananda or any of the other great teachers. Simply because, they were the full realization of themselves. And that’s really the call for us too, to realize ourselves.

One of the things that stood out for me was a reminiscing by Raya about Guruji’s response to his youthful frustration at the impossibility of being able to replicate his asana. The reply came later as an autographed line in the Art of Yoga, “The art of yoga is difficult but not impossible.” With love, B.K.S. Iyengar

In fact Raya actually suggested that we could write the exact words and it would hold true for us too. And he is right. It echoes the thought in the Gita about the promise of emancipation for all. Of the entire bit, ‘with love’ was the defining phrase for me. A child-like generosity unencumbered by ego. Not just Guruji but Geetaji and Prashantji also have that same simplicity of unfettered love.

It feels good to get back to a routine of practice and class. I thought of an inability for a regular practice as a loss of asana proficiency but it really doesn’t matter. Yoga is right where I am, how I am.

In my studies, I have come to the last chapter in the Geeta for this reading and I found myself going through the introduction of all the previous chapters as suggested in the footnotes. I ended up underlining many portions in those sections. Suffice to say, this exercise will need to be repeated again. In the meanwhile, it is time for another round of study of the yog sutras.

Hari Om

Namo Namah Shri Guru Padukabhyam

Where do I start? Talks at RIMYI are always rich in subject and today’s exploration was ‘Guru’.  

The thoughts expressed were familiar and new, the nuances different and it probably cannot be summarised in a post. Simply, because there is much to ruminate on. Prashantji left us with an interesting question to ask ourselves, ‘Who am I?’. The first thought that came to mind was the book, I am That by Nisarga Dutt Maharaj. It’s a theme common in Swami Chinmayananda’s works as well. But then, all teachings are one…

As usual, the Institute was chockablock with students, old and new, local and foreign. All of us, regardless of experience or lack of it, students. On such occasions, we usually chant the invocation together and it is a very powerful sensation. There is a palpable energy in that hall which somehow feels like a living entity. In the few minutes before the program started, I thought about what Guruji meant to me. 

I never had the opportunity to study from him in person, yet like Eklavya, I found my Guru in him. ‘Guru in absentia’ as Firooza put it. Unlike Eklavya though, I am an undeserving pupil. Guruji is like an ocean, both the anonymous drop and the mighty ocean. As Prashantji pointed out, his brilliance was the cumulative effect of his many Gurus over many lifetimes and their Gurus over their lifetimes. The eternal Guru-Shishya parampara that transcends time and space. Each generation stands on the shoulders of the previous one and builds from that base. Prashantji shared an anecdote of how as a child, he couldn’t see what was going on during a Ganesh festival procession. His father hoisted him onto his shoulders and then a young Prashant could see beyond what his father could! He reminded us about the traditional practice of paying homage to our ancestors, the pitrs. There’s an interesting story about Bhageerath and the Ganga that touches on this theme. But, that’s another post altogether. This day, Guru Pournima, is in honour of that Guru principle. 

Besides the pancha tattvas, there is a sixth- the Guru tattva as Firooza said. The inner Guru, the one that manifests itself when the student is ready. The analogy of a mirror brought out the concept beautifully. Darshan being nothing but Atma Darshanam, the illuminating of the Self within. That mirror needs constant cleaning and polishing to remain clean and free from distortion to see clearly. Until then, it is abhyasa and vairagyam- the twin tools or techniques to prepare ourselves for that vision. Even Arjuna needed special vision to see his beloved Krishna’s true essence.

Guruji’s life and conduct was his teaching and that’s why he is a true Guru despite multitudes never having been in his physical presence. He is a living force for me through his students and writings. Thanks to technology, I can hear him too and it is that booming voice that jumps out from the pages whenever I read his books.

The lotus feet of the Guru 🙏
 

Two hours of experience and knowledge of those blessed with his attention will need many more hours of introspection and contemplation before they start revealing their truths as and when I become worthy.

As the concluding lines of the Svetasvatara Upanishad goes, “He who has the same supreme devotion for the Guru as for God, indeed to the great person the spoken meanings of the Upanishads become revealed.” I pray that I remain a devoted student all my life and find the strength to come back no matter how many times I fall. 

Signing off with a verse from the Bhaja Govindam (31)

गुरुचरणाम्बुजनिर्भरभक्त:

संसारादचिराद्भव मुक्त:।

सेन्द्रियमानसनियमादेवं

द्रक्ष्यसि निजह्रदयस्थं देवं।।३१।।
Hari Om

Image courtesy: Rupali – a fellow student at RIMYI

“Fall like a flower from a tree”

I got swept in the whirlwind of life, school exams and concert rehearsals for my little one, increased work, family and social commitments etc. In the midst of the fullness of life, I had another small miracle moment. During practice one morning, there was a cracking sound in my neck and I gingerly moved it. There was increased range of motion in the stiffer side. I had a similar experience with my shoulders a few months ago and that allowed me freedom to rotate my shoulders. 

I don’t have the achy neck and debilitating days after now. It is scary to mention it out loud, what if I jinx myself. But that’s my truth. For a few years, I lived with pain and the rounds of tractions, medication, heat therapy and a screeching stop to my activities. It was not just my body but my mind that would despair.

Another gift of yoga. It happened on the day of Guruji’s punyathithi (death anniversary) and I like to think of this as a blessing from beyond.

Until yoga happened to me, I never felt the sense of bhakti or shraddha. My mother-in-law has always been blessed with devotional faith and is a Krishna bhakt. She always finds solace in her faith and I used to wish I could have that unquestioning faith and emotional connect. I thought it was the way of knowledge or work that suited my inclination.

The invocation I chant in class or at home was perhaps my first glimpse into the possibility of shraddha and bhakti. As I bow my head at the end of the prayer, I mentally put my practice as my offering, the results not mine but that of my teachers. It has helped me to keep my perspective and focus on the effort and not the result. I have a lot to learn just sitting in a simple cross legged pose for the invocation. The instructions are simple enough but I am not alert and relaxed. There is too much “I” ness in my head. Something my teacher reminisced during the memorial program (that’s a separate post) about Guruji is my ideal now. She mentioned how Guruji told her to stop giving so many instructions for Uttanasana and just say, “fall like a flower from a tree”. Just like that. The flower doesn’t think, neither does the tree. It happens in the naturalness of time when the time is ripe.

Avidya through the lens

I recorded my practice today and watched myself to see where I was going off.

To my inexperienced eye, my spine was the biggest eye opener. I thought my back was concave but it was most definitely not. In retrospect, I think I need to work on my shoulder blades and extend my sides to get that action. In class, the teacher’s instructions are pointed and the collective energy makes a whole lot of movement easier to access. At home, I lose those adjustments while thinking I am on track. Avidya and asmita at play.

A while ago, I would either be in despair or frustrated with my seeming lack of progress. Today, I can get up again and again. There is a sentence from Light on Life by Guruji that keeps me inspired to keep going.

“The presence of truth can make us feel naked, but compassion takes all our shame away.”

Yoga has helped to take away a lot of my inhibitions and self judgements to be able to keep striving. This attitude has also spilled into my life away from the mat. Every time I strip down to my bloomers, it is getting naked and baring my flaws. Some days I am not able to get out of my head and then it doesn’t feel complete. At other times, the surrender is total and I am led by the practice. Those moments are light but it happens so infrequently that I wonder if it is real.