“Learning is as much an art as teaching”

In the course of classes, assisting, library work etc. there is much teaching available. Senior teachers guide, books and videos educate and so on. Often in the classes for the advanced students, there is an exhortation to learn, to catch what is unsaid but available as experience. That is the heuristic process the teachers would like us to embark upon.

In the process of learning, the architect is really the student. The teacher, teachings rain their bounty but it could either soak and seep into one’s being or then run off. There needs to be preparation, there needs to be a strong why behind the desire to learn. Sometimes it is easy to slip into the metric of years of experience to determine readiness, but it is not a hard and fast criterion. The preparation is more a cultivation of the heart and is available to all.

It has been interesting to see how all that I dabbled in over the last few years has now begun to start coming together. Whether memorising, rereading, writing or blogging, they all have served richly. As M and I continue to read, I see that connections to texts I’ve read earlier arise spontaneously. And that in turn makes me look at related sutras. At the heart of yoga is the Yoga sutras of Patanjali. It circles back to the aphorisms every time. As a text, it is ever fresh.

The invocation to Sage Patanjali at the start of every single session is a powerful reminder of everything we need to remember as yoga practitioners. What is expected as preparation, what is to be explored, the pitfalls and the promise. The invocation we chant at the beginning is an act of devotion, a reminder to ourselves about the twin practices of abhyasa and vairagyam. It is a remembering of our teachers, Gurus and their Gurus all the way until the principle of Patanjali. There can be no true grace in learning without surrender.

Secular studies don’t ask this of its students. But, journeys of the spirit call for the courage to surrender to the unknown. Shraddha, Virya, Smriti and Samadhi Prajna form the base of one’s studentship. The second pada begins with the kriya of sadhana. Core of the yoga sutras has an entire chapter devoted to Sadhana Krama which opens the four aspects of this krama- sodhana, sosana, sobhana and samana. The journey of one’s sadhana is from the body to the Self even if it may not culminate there for most of us. It is the direction in which we proceed.

Abhyasa is primarily to remove the antarayas that afflict us. That requires the laser focus of practice devoted to a single principle. At the crux of it, abhyasa is a practice of purification. From sattva shuddhi comes the yogyata or eligibility. It is brilliant, the beautiful way in which the sutras factor in all aspects of human psychology while laying out a system for self realizatiion.

Sometimes I wonder if the initial purpose of this blog is served anymore. It started because I couldn’t find anything that I could relate to as a raw beginner. Asanas, yes but more than that, I sought to understand what I might expect along the way. I’m still a beginner but there has been a shift from that arambhavastha and the reflections here have mirrored that. But, this has also been a space to document my meander. I’ve decided to do something I did a couple of years back, stay with one thought from an old calendar. This month’s thought is, ‘Yoga is awareness’. Hopefully, I may wrap up the contemplation with a post.

Month’s end and year’s close

December was intense, packed to capacity. Yet it didn’t feel like a blur but just a full measure of itself. It was a month of a 2 week intensive over and above regular classes, volunteer work, a couple of out of town trips, some personal upheaval and a new experience of reading with someone. M and I have been reading Light on Life. Aloud. The last time something like this happened was in school when the teachers would make us read in turns. This has been a great exercise in more ways than one. The nature of these readings is different, slower, in smaller portions and in the light of lived experience, more nuanced. It is much richer for the exchange of experience, interpretation and questions that arise. Consequently, much of my earlier readings have surfaced in context to the experience of yoga today and I have been re-reading them. We read in person or online everyday and it is something I look forward to. The book is an all-time favourite and I am delighted when she finds joy in its words.

While it seems like all the work we do as yoga practitioners is physical, the bulk of yoga really is in the mess and muddle of living our day to day lives. This book is a beautiful exploration of yoga beyond the mat and I read it cover to cover at least once a year. It is also one which sees a generous dipping into whenever I need a shot in the arm. Open up any page and there is something that speaks to you.

As I assist in classes and therapy sessions or then sub for a teacher, I see myself in the struggles of other bodies. Outwardly, I seem all put together but on the mat, there is a dance of making space and pushing boundaries. The changing vagaries of a woman’s physiology make time on the mat a practice of surrender. I don’t know what the day will bring and have to listen to the body’s needs. That is a separate post in itself. It is good abhyasa to prepare for life as someone growing older and heading towards the next phase. Considering the intensive, practice was not possible with the classes we were doing but now there is a routine back in place. Practice in the hall has been good as there is so much to learn, from the teachers of course but also in being helped by and helping one’s peers.

Since it is the turn of the year, it is also habitual to reflect on the year that has passed and think about the one that is an yet to be born. Right at the start, Covid and unemployment hit. Workwise, it has been a lacklustre year although I managed to keep afloat. But, somewhere there was a firm faith that I would receive what I needed and that is exactly what happened. Asana practice was a mix of progress, slowing down, changing track. As someone with many problem areas, it is both a blessing and sometimes a mild frustration. Blessing because there is time spent in basic actions, working slowly and gaining a sensitivity that might not have been there otherwise. It also helps me when I have to help someone else. Mid year saw the reopening of RIMYI, offline classes and a gradual change of my role there. It took me time to inhabit this role. At year’s end, I belong. And I remain fascinated by how one man created such a tremendous wealth of wisdom in his lifetime. His children, grand children, teachers and students carry on the legacy and listening to them, learning from them is precious.

Yoga has always been there as the path to walk on but I didn’t think it would choose me. I kept looking over my shoulder thinking that it could not possibly be calling me. But, as everything else fell off by the way side and I stood alone, it was impossible to not see that it was really harking to me. I’m content and my heart feels filled to the brim with the shape of my life. Studentship and service is a good place to be. I would like to add another day of practice in the hall in the coming year and work with renewed vigour on the texts. Signing off with one of the aha moments from a recent pranayama class which really stayed with me, “Penetration happens from the back body”.

Atha

Subbed a class yesterday. While I was nervous to begin with, once I saw the little boxes with bent elbows and knees, my mind forgot to be nervous and it was simply a matter of transmitting the message of straightness that was required in the limbs during the asanas. The more time I spend in classes, whether as a participant or observer, I am mesmerized by how extensive and intensive the entire system is. What appears simple on the surface is actually fathoms deep. All we see are waves and like children, splash happily on the shore but the giants of the oceans live in its depths.

It is when one looks at asanas with alignment and those without the symmetry and elegance that one begins to see discipline in its external form. Internally, there is more cohesiveness in the entire embodiment. The body, breath and mind lose its scatteredness and come together. But it takes time and a lot of frustration in the early days. And there is really no alternative but to do. Repeatedly until the rigidity is transformed into something malleable through which energy can flow naturally. These were concepts that I comprehended cerebrally but experiencing them happened in its own time.

Over the years, this blog has traced a squiggly path that I’ve found myself on. It has been a witness to progress and setbacks, life altering changes and study. Most of the time, I’ve stopped and marked the passage in some fashion. There were phases when I withdrew and periods of prolificacy, also markers in themselves of the changes along the way. Last night, I was thinking about how my journey in yoga actually began much before I stepped into the class. About 12-13 years ago, there was a period of searching. I found myself reading the epics of this land which provided the stepping stone to picking up the Gita and later the Upanishads. I read and was mesmerized by their sheer poetry. I think my fascination was really the language and its power as the concepts they spoke about were complex even though the words were simple.

All I wished then was to have a Guru, a real one. I was told that I would find one in my late 30s. I did but it was not quite how I imagined. I found my Guru, the year he left his embodiment. His words reached me through his students and disciples, his books and most of all the subjective experience of his teachings. If I had to look at my studentship, it needs more but I’ve made my peace with my pace. There is no goal as such, simply the chipping away. Changes happen over time but what we all have is just what is right in front of us at any moment. It is only when I look back that I see what a wonderful gift it is. I suppose the first word of the first sutra says it best. Atha. No past, no future. Just the infinity of now. Asanas are a way to experience that.

On the shoulders of giants

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.

Practice and Plateaus

Back in the hall after Diwali break and it was a quiet practice session in the morning. It was a little nippy and I put my mat near the entrance where the sun lightly toasted the floor. Restorative asanas mostly. That corner found a few people huddling for warmth. While the cool floors are great in summer, in cooler weather, they can be, well, cold. Some of Prashantji’s words from the Patanjali Jayanti Q & A session kept circling in my head. There are some answers there that I need to apply, implement. The sibling also echoed similar sentiments so I’ve been re-examining and working on rearranging things in my life.

Recently, I read something which resonated loudly.

“​If you always put limits on yourself and what you can do, physical or anything, you might as well be dead. It will spread into your work, your morality, your entire being. There are no limits, only plateaus. But you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.” – Bruce Lee

I didn’t quite identify the plateau phase for what it is. And that last sentence echoed Geetaji’s exhortation. The plateaus are such an essential part of the journey. One needs time to assimilate and synthesize before moving on. While it appears static, there is a lot happening under the surface, just that it is not visible. Perhaps, one doesn’t really slow down enough or maybe the sensitivity is lacking to observe and note dispassionately. All one thinks of is the seeming stagnation.

Post practice this morning, I sat outside for a while and tried to think about what my practice showed me today. And today’s observation was that asana is a container for the breath, mind and body to play. Asana as a seat is a witnessing of that interwoven nature of all three. In my raw state, all I see are glimpses and the presence of all three but isolating the strands to identify them individually and in their interconnected way is not available. I suppose one needs to spend time in lots of plateaus and persist with devotion and courage. (1.14)

Week wrapped backwards

Backbends week and it was some heavy lifting. Not difficult, just intense. When I think of the crazy backbends I was put into a few years ago, these seem mild and I think perhaps I could push a little. But, it is a tricky category. It requires determination and courage but it would also be foolhardy to rush into it. And in the interim, I feel my changed body as well. Outwardly, it looks the same or perhaps a little leaner but inside, there is heaviness. A woman’s body has its weather and then there’s the climatic conditions too. And like Shakira croons, ‘hips don’t lie’. They feel their age.

Vipareeta Dandasana Morning and Evening expressions

The week’s practice was a lot of baddakonasana and some backbends. Just nudging the body to work with resistance, to bring restraint in action. Tinkering, coaxing until it becomes amenable to change. It takes time and patience in good measure but the body does yield, the mind does yield.
Someone sent me a clip of an industrialist sharing his experience with Guruji and yoga and there was such a nugget of wisdom there. Basically, fix the functioning and the structure will eventually fall into place. Sharing it here should you like a watch. I guess one could draw parallels with karma yoga here. Do without expectation of the fruits of your labour.

Then there is Prashantji’s class which is in a different realm. Dizzying in its nuanced complexities and one can only wonder at his vast knowledge. His education series talks are very illuminating. They keep me company on my commute to and fro the institute. In one of his earlier classes he had mentioned developing one’s own schema in the study of this subject. And I find that anchoring in one text is a good way to explore.

Assisting is becoming a little more natural. I realised I would instinctively tense when I was called to do something because I wasn’t sure I would know how and thought I should have known But, once I became aware of it, the experience has been one of natural curiosity and openness. And in the process, learning has been more organic. Therapy sessions are about agility and precision but that comes with slowness. Breaking down the steps into a series of logical progressions that are accessible.

The institute will see its first in-person event on Patanjali Jayanti and I’m looking forward to it. Prior to the pandemic, the hall would be spilling over with people and there would be arrangements for people to watch on a screen in the lobby area. Considering a hybrid way of life, it would be interesting to see how it pans out. Through the year, everyone is in bloomers and tees so the dressed up selves are quite a lovely change.

Diwali is just around the bend and there will be a welcome break from the routine. It is a pretty time of the year but this year the monsoon has refused to depart and may play spoilsport.

Studentship

What a fabulous day! 

There is a steady rhythm to the week with its fullness. Class, chores, a little work and a little tinkering in terms of asana practice. Thursdays see me practice in the hall now, something I had thought I would do once the youngling started college. Usually, it is a repetition of whatever was done the previous day in class to sort of reinforce the learning. But today, I had planned to work on ekpada sirsasana and sarvangasana. So, prepped accordingly and got into the pose when one of the old timers came and showed me an area to work on. So, out with the ekpada it was and the rest of my time was devoted to learning that action. I went into ardha sirsasana to learn multiple actions in the pose. By the end of my practice session, I had an experience in and of sirsasana that was a first.

The day was a full one as I spent the rest of it with a niece I was meeting after a decade. Conversation, some decadent cake and coffee and loads of laughter later, it was time for class and I was mildly regretting stuffing my face. Thankfully, the evening session doesn’t see hardcore inversions so I thought I could wing it. I didn’t have the time to think of having a full belly as the teacher took us through various approaches. The highlight was a lovely adho mukha baddakonasana. I struggle with baddakonasana and a forward bend in it is way off without enough prep work  but today’s class took me into a quiet pose, one that I could have stayed in for longer. 

At day’s end, I feel exhilarated. I learned many things, discovered many things. Often, asana practice is simply toiling and tinkering with very little dramatic change. All the regular work improves range but those paradigm shifts happen when the necessary tilling of the body’s soil is done. Although it looks like a lot of body work, it is not about the body at all. It is a seeing.

It’s been about 4 months since the institute opened and the shape of my days is very different from what I could have imagined. In the very initial days of this academic year, it was confusing for me, especially while assisting. Somehow practising in the hall is where a whole different kind of education is happening. Between the varied levels of classes and the engagement in them, I am being shaped. While outwardly it seems like training to be an assistant or teacher, I feel I’m really being opened as a student.    

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.

Learning to learn

​Every time I sit down to write here, I realize the days have slipped away yet again. The last two weeks included some sudden work assignments as well as unexpected family commitments and classes. There was a COVID scare thrown in for good measure too. But all’s well that ends well. Back to classes and even managed to get on top of pending work. Sometimes I feel that I accomplish a lot more when there are multiple balls up in the air.

Fridays in September are special with a limited series of classes by Prashantji. It is pure joy being in that session. He’s got a delightful sense of humour and some of his anecdotes show a very different side of a man considered serious. I’ve been sifting through my memories of my early days at the institute and remembered the wish to study with him. I can’t quite believe how it is a reality today. At the start of this academic year, I had no clue that I would be doing a different set of classes than the ones I opted for. I don’t have the necessary asana proficiency in order to do all that is required in some of those classes. As for Pranayama, that’s barely there either and I feel like I’ve not got all my studying in. But something he said in one of the classes stuck with me. In a nutshell, when the subject is complex, one has to formalize a schema for learning. I’ve yet to articulate it for myself.

That’s been my struggle currently. The last couple of months has been an evolving of different kinds of learning as well as levels of learning. So, I’d struggle with what to practice or focus on. Today, it sort of made sense while I was on the mat. I need to work mostly on the gross asana work at home while absorbing the nuances in class. Allow those learnings to also grow organically, the way asanas grew. I’ve been rereading some of Prashantji’s books and now there is the beginning of a glimpse of the subjective understanding of some of the concepts he speaks about.

This evening was kind of fun actually. The youngling also practised with me (a first). She made funny faces and did a little jiggle in the poses and we burst out laughing. Once she was done, I continued with inversions. Grunt work mostly. Just doing. Perhaps, it might be interesting to explore and document inversions in home practice this month. No goal as such, just explore, do, see, observe. Do without any expectation. Recently, I was reading a transcript of one of Geetaji’s lectures on a Gita Jayanti. She talks about how Ramakrishna Paramhansa summarizes the teaching of the Gita as tagi= tyag or sacrifice. It is really the crux of that beautiful text. Maybe the time is ripe for a re-reading.  

“When I practise, I am a philosopher. When I teach, I am a scientist. When I demonstrate, I am an artist.”, one of Guruji’s oft repeated quotes is brilliant at many levels. If I had to look at it in the way it is arranged, it begins with practice followed by teaching and culminating in art. Philosophy was the original enquiry before it split into the sciences and arts. In another approach, it is the schemata required for different facets of a discipline. And yet, despite three different role assumptions, each is contained in the others. It’s incomparably elegant as a framework for any pursuit.

Samatvam

Technically, I am doing only one offline class. In the others, I am a student but from an assisting perspective. They are vastly different. I am comfortable in following instructions and adapting to my physical conditions, getting in and out of poses, using props, supporting areas that need help etc. but when it comes to other bodies, the reading from a helper’s perspective is a new one. As an observer, it is easy to simply note but while adjusting, there is technique, skill and agility required. It is a different kind of learning. In the medical class, the method is one of improvisation so there is a whole lot of gear shifting. And then there are online classes, three that I attend besides 2 as a demonstrator. Those are different in the quietness of my home.

I make notes else there is no way to keep track of the progression of classes, the way the theme of one class links to another. They are short ones that I go through before a class to remind myself. I also find myself watching and practising to videos, reading and writing. In short, it is like being in school or college. And I’m loving it. So much so, that other things seem like disturbances. If it weren’t for the need to pay bills and the unavoidable familial and social commitments, I probably would just want to study forever.

Yesterday evening, I was playing the helper’s role in an evening class and as the teacher exhorted the students to “do maximum”, I found myself smiling, remembering how it would feel impossible when she would say that and all that I could hear in my head would be, ‘when will she say, ok come down’ and the relief that would rush through the muscles. I could see that in the students. But at the end, there would be a sense of accomplishment and a spring in my step while leaving. I see that light in others. It is very interesting to observe bodies, they speak quite eloquently. While assisting, some of them resist while others welcome the help. These days, I find myself slowly assuming my place in that hall and providing what is needed, listening and doing. All I have to do is simply listen to the teacher and see if her instructions are being implemented.

While it was a mix of last week and 5th week kind of asanas, if I had to pick a theme, it would be samatvam, evenness. In one of the recent yoga sutra sessions or perhaps it was one of his classes, Srineet mentioned how ‘samatvam yoga uchyate‘ which is used commonly as a definition does not really say it all, Samatvam is more in the nature of a result or effect of yoga. It makes sense to see it both ways. After all, cause and effect are the same, just different manifestations.