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. 🙂

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.

How many Trikonasanas?

This morning, I wanted to go to the hall to practice but decided to practise at home instead. I live a fair distance away from the institute and travel to and fro easily takes 2 hours. Hopefully, I can go tomorrow. Anyways, I didn’t quite have a plan until a few minutes on the mat.

It was a different approach to basic standing poses, unknowingly entered into. Arm work to sensitize the back which in turn fed the arms and resulted in a long Trikonasana, long Ardha Chandrasana and long forward bends. Sometimes I record myself to see how it looks from the outside and today it surprised me. Internally, all I am focused on is the effort while externally it is about the outcome. And a few years of practice does have outcomes. I was reasonably satisfied with the expression of the pose.

This awareness of having a little knowledge has been a surprise not just in asana but also in other aspects. Recently, I went on a tree walk and a birding session and in both instances, figured out that I was probably not a novice. Amateur yes, but not completely raw. This identity is a new one to inhabit. It reiterated what my teacher said about all of us always learning. That doesn’t mean that we haven’t learnt anything yet. It’s probably not such an issue for most people and I wonder at how easily people accept their proficiency. I doubt. A lot. But perhaps, this is a better way to keep the mind open to continue to learn.

Back to the asanas, since there wasn’t too much of a focus except the arm and back to aid the pose, I played with increasing the difficulty of the pose by taking a brick for the upper hand, reducing the turn of the back leg and so on while keeping the attention on the back. Basically, exploring the capacity of the body to obey, extend and push to the brink just to the point where a new baseline will be set. One of my challenges is to reduce the turn of the back leg in parsvottanasana, virabhadrasana 1 etc. Today, there was joy in getting the hand to the floor while maintaining the integrity of Trikonasana, as well as achieving a small reduction in the turn of that back leg. Like that song, how many Trikonasanas must a sadhaka practise before it is an effortless one?🙂

Edit: Post typing the above section, I ended up picking The Tree of Yoga to read and the page opened to the chapter on Effort, Awareness and Joy. The Guru always appears.


In gratitude

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.

Weekend yoga

Every weekend I turn in-house teacher to my husband. He attends a couple of classes in Mumbai but insists on having me instruct him for a weekend practice. So, we go through the usual cues and practise together. This has been going on for a while and he now has a regular home practice back in Mumbai. We do just the basics and it is a good opportunity for me to remind myself of the actions required. It also makes me pause and see what are the immediate effects of certain actions. Somewhere the body’s natural logic is making itself felt as instinct/ intuition kick in to help with problem areas.

Seeing him struggle, I see myself, how I used to be, a few months ago. The same disobedient body, the same frustration of losing balance repeatedly and the despair that the whole endeavour was pointless. Yet getting back on the mat again and again started to work its magic. And slowly there began a shaping of the mind and body as the two began to communicate. It is heartening to see his progress although he probably doesn’t see it as such. His woe is not being able to clasp his hands in gomukhasana or touch the ground in uttanasana. I see the changes in how he does not give up attempting an asana against his aversion to it. I see it in how he adjusts his chest to an internal cue, how he stays in the pose even when the unused muscles groan. Earlier, he would just say I can’t do it, it is too painful. Watching him is really watching myself.
We started out hesitantly with me refusing until he sort of threatened to stop attending class unless I taught him. He spent more time standing around and avoiding most of the asanas there. Every class left him feeling depressed that he couldn’t get anything right. Now he attempts the asanas although his standard reply when I ask him ‘what did you do in class today’ is ‘pincha mayurasana’ and we laugh.

Yoga is hope.

Ground Up

Being barefoot for almost the entire day over the last couple of weeks has seen a shift in asana practice. Better grip on the floor, better balance and a certain sinewy strength in my legs. Movements originate more from the proximal joints and there is more space through the legs. There is a slow but definite increase in padding on my soles although it is more visible on the right foot. My toes are better spread out and the soles are open. I feel my feet better and more fully when standing.
Somehow barefoot running doesn’t feel contradictory to an asana practice and the mental conflict about the same is absent. Perhaps it could be that I am just walking barefoot now and so the load is minimal. I guess even when I start to run, it would be very difficult to go against the body’s wisdom for too long. I was lucky to make that mistake early on.
Today’s class was very interesting as our teacher taught us how to begin a home practice. Last Wednesday she had asked us to get notebooks and most of us had our pens and books at the ready. We wrote in upavishta konasana, prasarita padottanasana and a few other asanas which was fun. She gave a few ideas on sequences to practise. As beginners, we just had to stick to the standing poses and practise sirsasana and Sarvangasana. If time was a constraint, we could reduce the variety of standing poses but do the inversions without fail. It’s a good way for me to practise when the weekly sequence seems overwhelming.
The two key takeouts from her suggestions were to
– Find one mistake in each pose and correct that fault.
– Try and increase the range of movement
Body fatigue is one thing which is unusual unless I am running a lot but it’s the mental rebelliousness and flightiness that I find hard to deal with. I missed a few days of asana practice by the book and it didn’t feel good. The few poses I did were not enriching as they were done as stretches. I did not chant the invocation and had no direction. It was more a fear that I did not want to miss doing something. It trickled into my everyday life and I found myself snappier and overwhelmed. The degree of unmanageability has lessened and perhaps it is not visible outside but I know it inside. Lesson learnt. Quality over quantity.
About a year back, I was chatting with my husband and mentioned that maybe over time my voice would improve if I continued practising. Recently, while reciting the invocation to Sage Patanjali, I could feel the change in my Omkara, a distinctive change in the quality of the syllable, more a steady vibration than the voice really. Perhaps it is the inversions, maybe it is the power of the Omkar, maybe it is grounding into the earth (a wild premise but I did notice it after the barefoot experiment, prithvi to akasha?), I do not know. My mind still wanders and I get caught up in the next line to recite and forget to be in the syllable being verbalised. Despite all my shortcomings, there is a different expanded sense of time during that brief chanting.
I’ve been contemplating a regular japa practise for sometime but haven’t been able to commit myself to it on an everyday basis. As of now, it is whenever I feel like it but that is not a practice and for change to take root, it needs the regularity of discipline. The Gayatri and Shiva mantras are familiar. There was a period in my life when I chanted the Mahamritunjaya mantra regularly. Some say it is a corollary to the Gayatri.

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Rudraksha Japa Mala

As a deity, Lord Shiva appeals to me with all his symbolism. Householder and ascetic. Terrible and Innocent. Supreme Yogi. Auspiciousness. Perhaps this Shivratri can be a day I commence my japa practice? It is an auspicious day for all spiritual sadhana and maybe just the little push to take that first step? If it be His will…

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Adi Guru

Om Namah Shivaya