Flying shoulder stands and some thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you

I’ve mostly been self taught since my late teens and it settled into a comfortable habit, this slow stubborn plod through whatever subject I was interested in. Much later, I ran alone, practised alone and stayed on the fringes of groups. Studies of the texts have also been mostly alone. In all this, I did have direction and guidance in the form of books, excellent ones. That’s one of the advantages of self study, one quickly learns to separate the good from the average. 

Blogging has been my connection with others and over the years, I have enjoyed, learned and been inspired by fellow bloggers. Listing them below in no particular order, each one a precious home on the web. For the sake of brevity, these are blogs related to yoga and in one case ayurveda. 

One of the pitfalls of access to information is the explosion of content and it is difficult to find original and authentic thought and experience. These blogs have rung true for me and I remain grateful for the chance to see life through the lens of their authors. A heartfelt thank you to some wonderful fellow travellers who have shared freely of their experiences. 

 

 

Time

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

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

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

Out in the open

Friday evenings, I remain at the back of the hall not sure what I should do. Yesterday, one of my teachers called me out on this lurking in the shadows. I am so raw, so much a beginner that I wonder what can I do to be of use in a therapy class. But, apparently there is something I can do. Yesterday, I was put with a student who had a similar kind sequence to mine when I was broken. And I got to see how my face might have changed as I saw her skin and eyes lighten. “Open the corners of your eyes” used to be a common refrain then and I found myself mouthing the same.

In one Urdhva Dhanurasana, her body just changed shape and all it took was the teacher’s instruction on one or two actions. That movement was much more than the one with hands helping her become tall. The teacher mentioned that that’s why Guruji would call that asana the art of living. Skilfulness in teaching, that’s what I love about the teachers here. Knowing when to support and when to let the student find out. As also, knowing how much a student can take. In retrospect, I was put through the wringer. I think of it as yoga magic but another teacher pointed out that it was blood and tears. That’s true too. But, one still needs to be touched by grace – of teachers and a Power greater than oneself. I’m grateful to have received that in abundance.

These days, I don’t end up looking back and my heart and head feel like a clear stream with no leftovers from yesterday. It feels as though all the sludge is gone and all that is left is a clean river bed for water to gurgle over. I laugh more and am less self conscious, like a child. The tightness in my neck and throat is no longer there and I can lie in savasana. I am awake and alive. This morning, I went on a tree walk and the guide mentioned how it took some 30-40 years before the barks acquire some character. Human beings are like that too.

A White Shirish tree with its distinctive bark that I had the pleasure of meeting this morning.

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

Pranamami Patanjalim

25 years ago, I heard the invocation to Sage Patanjali for the very first time. It took quite a few sessions before I could recite it along with the others. This was long before access to the internet and we had to wait for class for a repetition. Fast forward to today and I chanted the invocation aloud after a long time.

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There are a few beautiful idols of SagePatanjali in the institute and the artist’s rendition of the form is beautiful. It conveys great potential and stillness at the same time. I’ve mused about it earlier too.

A few months ago, the invocation would make me all teary eyed and so I was told to stop chanting it. Instead, I stayed in Vipareeta Dandasana on the bench and leaked or heaved grief. Over the last few weeks, I’ve silently mouthed the words or whispered it, not trusting myself to remain still. Baby steps.

Invocation is a common feature in traditional studies and all the texts begin with one. It sets the tone for teaching and learning where one leaves all other roles and enters into a time and space of NOW or the ‘atha‘ that the first sutra mentions. As much as there is responsibility on the teacher to impart teaching, there is also an equal effort expected of the student to learn.

The invocation to Patanjali is a standard across Iyengar classes, sometimes accompanied by the Guru Brahma mantra. Often, the teachers draw attention to some part of the body and later that turns out to be the focal point of study through the sequence. A few years ago, it would be a kind of mental game to guess what might be the asanas for the class. Interestingly, class today was almost the same as my home practice yesterday. One of the differences was that I overdid in class while yesterday’s home practice was pushing just beyond the limitations of comfort and fear of injury.
One was an external, display kind of approach while the other was an internal exploration approach.

Around the time, the downward spiral started, I realized that I needed to let myself go completely to come back. It was contrary to a rigid self belief that come what may, I had to continue in a regimented fashion but the body and mind were unwilling and unyielding. I had to learn to receive help and start from the beginning. Funnily, the good habits from then came back naturally once the mind started to empty itself of leftover emotional debris.

In a strange way, the universe binds us all more closely than we realize. After class, I thought of writing about my experience with the invocation and my dear faraway friend’s post about it was just the little nudge I needed to share my thoughts.