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

Bridge over troubled times

2019 is long over but the calendar from last year still hangs where I see it up close. My eyes stray to it multiple times in the course of the day and as the month progresses, my viewing also gets adjusted. It inspires enquiry and experimentation. Often, more questions are raised than discovering of answers. I suppose that is the process of svadhyaya.

Somehow, seeing the asana everyday makes it seep into its practice too. I find myself cueing what I observe. It’s a different learning in the absence of a class. No oral instructions, just watching a still image and finding out for oneself. On one of my other blogs, someone mentioned the word tattolna and it probably explains this seeking. An exploration, a seeking , a searching for oneself.

Before Vipareeta Dandasana became my favourite pose, Setu Bandha Sarvangasana held that place. Of course, not very yogic in being attached to an asana but then I’m not a yogi :). It would be the one I chose when given an option between any of the cooling inversions. Almost always, propped. Besides the bolster, brick, bench versions, there was one with the bench and a large square cushion which was a completely different experience. I learned to fill my breath in that one with P. She would ask me to reach her palm with my sternum as I inhaled and eventually, my sunken despairing heart began to open.

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana is often called Bridge pose but Light on Yoga mentions it as construction of bridge pose. It implies a movement. Classically entered from Sarvangasana, it makes sense. It also goes by Uttana Mayurasana or stretched peacock. In either name, there is an implied movement of stretching. One of the insistent images is that of the bridge to Lanka in the Ramayana and Hanuman’s leap across the sea. Intense and stretched.

Today, I took a picture of myself in the pose to share with a friend who was trying it as well. Later, I placed it alongside Guruji’s image from the calendar and saw an entire universe of a difference. It’s a good way to see and correct when there is no teacher to walk one through the finer details.

The world outside spins in lockdown which will continue for the next two weeks. We’ve been in this state for long enough to have it become the new normal. Post lockdown, whenever that happens, I still see myself living this kind of a life for the foreseeable future. Except for the financial implications of work, this minimal way of life has been one of a rich inner landscape. I avoid the news and check on updates every couple of days. Instead, there is much watching the skies, doing whatever little I can at work and volunteering. Meals are simple and readings are varied books. There is also a lavishing of time on my craft and I try to put something as an offering as often as I can. While the current state of the planet is one of fear and isolation, there is acceptance and a continuation of doing whatever one can. And that helps keep my world on an even keel. Eventually, this too will be in the past and the bridge would be complete.

Last month’s thought was ‘Yoga is equanimity’ and it has been an endeavour to keep that idea through the month. May says, ‘Yoga is harmony’ to the accompaniment of Setu Bandha Sarvangasana so that is the meditation through this month. Last year Pavithra mentioned that she had done this as an exercise and I thought it was a beautiful way of keeping yoga alive through the day. So an attempt even if the calendar be one year old.

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.

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.

The Art of Yoga

The empty hall is like a stage and the practitioners take their positions and props through that space to different rhythms. Yoga as an art is as evocative as classical Indian dance in its grace, poise and strength. It’s something I have come to appreciate as a practitioner and spectator, the art in this science. It reminds me of the a sentence in the foreword by Yehudi Menuhin, one of my favourite passages.

“Whoever has had the privilege of receiving Mr. Iyengar’s attention, or of witnessing the precision, refinement and beauty of his art, is introduced to that vision of perfection and innocence which is man as first created – unarmed, unashamed, son of God, lord of creation – in the Garden of Eden.”

I’ve spent the better part of two years looking at Light on Yoga images on the walls especially the contrast between the grainy black and white pictures and later coloured images. In his later years, Guruji looks still like undisturbed water as against the dynamism of his younger days. The other day, I was in the empty practice hall and thought of the one breath of life that connects all life, past, present and future. How many inhalations and exhalations had this space seen as they emerged and returned to source?

The space I gravitate towards remains the area near the trestle at the prop end, away from the hustle of a full hall. It’s quiet. There is comfort in the solid wood, cold floor and piles of props, all meant to serve bodies and minds that seek to learn, recover and heal. It’s a spartan space, as bare as it was when first constructed and part of the appeal lies in that asceticism. The window looks out to a large creeper that has wound itself around a tree trunk. Sometimes, when it rains, the sound of the water makes for a soothing backdrop. Life finds a way to adapt, survive and thrive.

One of my friends accuses me of being too square, a purist and I think, how can one not be when you see the richness and depth of an unadulterated pursuit? Every art demands obedience for a long, dedicated period before being ready to break rules, to create work which has enduring appeal. Yoga as practised by Guruji has that timeless quality and it continues in the living legacy of his students and their students.

Straight from the Heart

Two trips to the Institute yesterday. One for class, one for the Guru Pournima celebrations. Back bends and prostrations. Both filled my heart. 

The program began with the traditional invocation to Sage Patanjali and the Guru Brahma chant. It was followed by a beautiful dramatization of a series of conversations between 2 practitioners. Abhijata and Raya enacted the roles or rather spoke from the heart. The script was probably not necessary for them if their voices were anything to go by, almost as though everything they narrated, happened to them. Through their dialogue interspersed with some asana demonstration and video clippings, we were treated to some pearls of Guruji’s wisdom. Some things made me go “yes, I’ve felt that” and then I question if it is possible since I am so young in yoga. I too have felt the timelessness spoken about in paschimottanasana or janu sirsasana for the tiniest moments but then I am still very raw, so is it real? It doesn’t matter.

There was a quote by Guruji in the presentation that has stayed in my head since yesterday, “Does the flower fall from the tree of its own free will or does the tree abandon it?” 

Little K’s sketch on the program. I love the stick people doing asanas…

Geetaji released the latest Yoga Rahasya and spoke a few words at the end, reminding us all to preserve what Guruji has given us.

commemorating 50 years of Light on Yoga

The format of a dialogue between 2 practitioners was very interesting and got me thinking about my peers. Perhaps it would be nice to discuss the subject to find a different perspective. However, that is very limited since I wait for someone else to initiate a conversation. It’s nice when it happens but I’m equally content staying in silence. Perhaps, it is because I get my sense of community and fellowship through this blog. I receive encouragement and experience, unconditionally shared, that nudges me to explore in ways I don’t usually do. Online pilgrims on the same journey…

I wonder who did Guruji share with? Of course, millions of people through his books and teachings but that happened much later in his life. As a beginner, who did he share with? Today’s reading from Gaudapada’s Karika on the Mandukya Upanishad (commentary by Swami Chinmayananda) had a very beautiful line and I found my answer.

अस्पर्शयोगो वै नाम सर्वसत्त्वसुखो हितः।

अविवादो ऽ विरुद्वश्च देशितस्तं नमाम्यहम् ।।२।।

“I salute that yoga of detachment which is called asparsha, (lit. no touch, in other words, having no relationship with anything, at any time), which is taught through scriptures, which promotes the happiness of all, which is conducive to the well-being of all, which is beyond all disputes and which is at once free from strife and contradiction.”

The commentary by Swamiji states- In the case of Asparsha yoga, it being mainly the inward development of the individual, accomplished in the secret caves of the heart, it is never painful to others and it is ever good for the individual concerned.

The beauty of Guruji’s sadhana is the hope it gave and continues to give. Yoga as taught by him emphasised on correct alignment and is seen as rigid and harsh by some. But at the core of it is compassion. The language of the heart. 

Guruji was not a man, he was a phenomenon. Same with Swami Chinmayananda who made the great scriptures accessible to the modern day seeker.

Offering my humblest pranaams to Guruji and Swamiji who guide my path.

Hari Om