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.
The sheer brilliance of the Sutras in all their aspects, be it in the choice of words, their placement or their logic never fails to amaze me. Short, incisive and deep, they are brand new each time. Very often, the way a Sutra sounds attracts my attention and I look it up. I suppose the attraction is a natural way to indicate a kind of readiness to delve into it. As the months roll on, they speak differently as the capacity to listen changes. One of the many gifts yoga has bestowed has been an opening of the intellect which makes dense concepts more accessible.
Sometimes I wonder, why do I thirst so much? There is no exam, no goal to reach and yet I persist. What do I expect to gain from my endeavours? And I have no answer. This lack of ambition has been a constant in almost all areas of my life. I suppose the joy of endeavour is my gratification.
Svadhyaya or self study is an integral aspect of any sadhana and in all action. Preparation is the key to svadhyaya and so it comes after the necessary saucha, santosha and tapas. While it is a natural progression, I feel it is also an organic one with the evolving definitions of the preceding niyamas. It is like the horizon, visible but always a little beyond. Svadhyaya is defined as study of the self. But who or what is the self? Here, I find the concept of koshas quite illuminating. Starting from the annamaya kosha to the anandamaya kosha, the journey is both contained and infinite.
We are born with just the body and that is really all that is needed to be. If only I could really inhabit it, perhaps, I would be ananda that the scriptures sing about. It seems like an unattainable state to have complete awareness of each and every cell of out body. Now, I can begin to comprehend the essence of Guruji’s exhortation to bring awareness to each and every cell in the body. How then can one’s very existence not be bliss? How then can one not see that all is one?
September marks 2 years of my yoga practice. Much has changed within and without during this period. Trikonasana is not a hated pose anymore. However, the thirst to learn remains the same.
As a novice, I took my body to class and slowly my mind also attended. I stumbled through the poses as the rest of the students would move into the next asana. Class would often leave me sore as the body started to wake up. It never seemed possible that I could ever find any stability or symmetry. Yet, at the end of every class, I felt invigorated and as though I was inhabiting my body. It’s only now that asanas are beginning to be something to stay in. This became possible only because of a home practice. Initially, I had no clue about what to practice, how to practice and no idea of what I was doing. I just started mimicking whatever I remembered from class. Since, there were too many asanas to remember, making notes was the next step. Then came using the books and now my body often expresses what it needs. I still use class sequences sometimes or the ones in the book but there is a little exploration and experimentation that happens as well. The longer I study, the more I realise I have not even begun to study!
Yesterday, I wound up with a longish Supta Virasana at home and cramped a couple of times while in the pose. I stayed with the discomfort both times and it passed. The staying and passing away was a new experience of passive alertness. Just watching the breath and state of mind, being a witness. A tiny shift from an unthinking response to pain transformed into an opportunity to endure and create a new cell memory.
Tapas is not about pushing and exerting, sometimes it is about staying too. It requires a different kind of will. Burning zeal, penance, rigorous adherence to one’s discipline etc. are the typical descriptors that arise in context to the word. In the ordering of the niyamas, it is placed after santosha and I like to think that it corresponds to Agni and its location in our field of play. Perhaps, there is significance in that sequence as well, I do not know but intuitively, it feels like there is a connection. If I had to interpret tapas as I understand it today, I’d say
Tapas is solitary.
Tapas is burning love.
Tapas is the willingness to destroy.
Tapas is surrender.
Tapas is brilliance.
Tapas is humility.
Tapas is brutal honesty.
Tapas is out of sight.
Tapas is for the sake of tapas.
Guruji’s sadhana was a stellar example of tapas in the bustling world of ordinary people. An inspiration for those of us who often scatter about like a rent cloud…
Just yesterday, I was helping out someone with a few concepts for an English paper and we were exploring semantics and pragmatics. The shastras are a rich example of pragmatics at play. Much of the lyrical shlokas are simple at first glance but nuanced with layers of meaning, subjective and objective.
Svadhyaya as a niyama is placed after sauca, santosha and tapah in that order. It makes logical sense to start with a clean page, a content frame of mind to engage in a fully present practice. That allows for reflection and study. Svadhyaya for me includes reading, writing, listening and reflection. It is uncanny how coincidences crop up when exploring some thought. It is almost as though there is an internal compass which attracts attention towards related concepts.
I’d love to study the Shastras the traditional way but it doesn’t look very possible at present. Yet I can’t seem to pry myself away from delving into the ancient texts. I’ve read them earlier but that was a semantic experience, now they seem like the beginning of study. In the absence of a formal structure, it is still possible to endeavour thanks to the easy availability of good books and commentaries. The interpretations of great masters help to open the wealth of the compact utterances. It provides pointers on how to reflect on what is implicit.
‘We shall now explain the science of pronunciation. It consists of the sounds, accent or the pitch, quality or measure, the effort put in articulation, uniformity and continuity in pronouncing the letters. Thus has been explained the lesson on pronunciation.’
– Taittriya Upanishad, a commentary by Swami Chinmayananda
This deft word picture paints the study of phonetics. Unlike English which has its quirks like silent letters, Sanskrit and the few Indian languages that I know are read as they are written, the pronunciation is uniform. Perhaps the oral tradition and emphasis on memorisation before delving into a study was part of the technique of teaching and studying a language. There is great importance attached to the articulation of the words during chanting. All the aspects mentioned above are taken into account while reciting shlokas. It boils down to sound, yet again. Somehow, words and sound and study all seem to be intersecting repeatedly.
Coincidence again… I don’t think so anymore.
Almost every Wednesday, I listen to the yoga sutras and chant along as I drive to class. Today was no different except for the fact that my mind kept wandering. There’s a troublesome situation in my life right now and I have not had the opportunity to give myself a little time. A housefull of guests including tiny humans (absolutely adorable but also needing a lot of attention) and the usual load of work meant my regular routine going awry. I was in no frame of mind for class but also knew that being there would help bring me back to the present moment. Atleast that one hour in the week is one where I am fully engrossed.
Despite the diffused mind, the first Sutra of the second chapter jumped at me. Something I read in another book about the order of words being of significance in scriptural texts also came to mind and it has been my thought for rumination today. Yoga for me is also like that. Tapah followed by svadhyaya and all of it in a spirit of ishwara pranidhana. My practise and self study of asana, everyday behaviours and thought patterns are my offering to my teachers and her teachers.
Tapah for me is learning the hard way, the right way and not shirking from the discomfort. There is much to gain from the short term pain and frustration. In terms of asana, I find that in a matter of some 30 odd classes over 7 months, there has been a lot of change. Earlier Uttanasana meant flopping down to relax. Just stand and bend down. Now I find engaging my body and following all the cues relaxes me better.
Svadhyaya is a lot of stuff, reading, writing, taking an inventory of my thought patterns and behaviours. Sometimes I cannot practise my asanas but try to keep in touch with the spirit of it in my day to day activities. I see the lack of a lot of things and that keeps me on my toes.
Ishvara pranidhana is my offering up all of it to my teachers and those that went before her. Every time I chant the invocation on my mat, mentally I give the results of the time on the mat to my teachers. My asanas are a result of their teaching, it is not mine. I hope to remain only a student working hard and not attached to visible progress in the shape and form of the pose. I’d like the discovery to be an ongoing exercise.
Lately, I have been working with the back of my legs at home. Uttanasana, parsvottanasana, prasarita paddotanasana etc. and the difference is felt in Adho Mukha Svanasana. I can feel the length of the back of my leg all the way to the butt and a tallness even while looking down.
Today I mustered up enough courage to ask my teacher a question. After savasana today, we rolled to the right , then to the left then to the right again before getting up. We always get up from the right. I finally asked her why and she replied that it was because of the pure flow of energy on that side, it is auspicious. That got me thinking again about the prevalence of right handedness. Was it an inbuilt wiring for maintaining that flow? Then what about the left handed people? Today’s sirsasana learning was a lot of using both sides and I could see that surprisingly my left was easier. Perhaps it is my right side overdoing which doesn’t allow me the evenness. One answer leads to more questions but I find just asking them is enough. The answers appear somehow.
The body mind connection is so real. My shoulder has been acting up a bit and I have found myself slipping into a stoop in avoidance. In Sirsasana today, the left shoulder just couldn’t stay lifted. I see it as a direct symptom of the painful situation in my life currently. We did Setuband Sarvangasana on a brick today and it reminded me of my earlier class. Whenever an option was given between Sarvangasana, Viparita Karani and Setuband Sarvangasana, I used to choose the last one. Something about it gives me a little courage to go on when I think I can’t.
Diwali is just around the corner and it’s my favourite time of the year. I like scrubbing my walls and floors clean, throwing out things that have just been sitting around, making small hampers for my neighbours and friends and enjoying the pleasant evenings. I took a day off work to clean up and it got me back on track.
I find cleaning up very therapeutic. It helps me gather myself when I get scattered. The last couple of weeks were quite hectic and I had a slump in my home practice. It began with class a couple of weeks ago.
It was that time of the month and the class was hard work. After that I just didn’t want to exert myself. I did a few restorative asanas on my bed when I needed some relief but just didn’t get on the mat. Neither did I do any reading nor any journalling. Generally found myself sliding in all areas of my life, in short unmanageable and overwhelmed.
I finally shook the lethargy and got to practice a few days ago when I swatted a mosquito that was hovering around me. I felt terrible, snuffing out that life especially when I was practising. Generally, I don’t kill bugs but pick them up and put them away or shoo them. I think of how I would feel if a giant had to crush me. This was unthinking and it felt like a big violation. It probably sounds like a lot of hue and cry about a mosquito but that was a life.
This Wednesday, my teacher mentioned ahimsa using the nature of execution of asana as an example and it brought a lump to my throat when I thought of that tiny insect.
Yama niyama definitions keep changing for me, what was acceptable once does not work now. There is no choice but to continue and at times I wonder if I should continue to blog about my experiences. I feel it is an inside job and part of that means to stay with the pains and pleasures. At the same time, I also like to read experiences of others on the same journey as it gives me hope and a different perspective. It doesn’t seem fair to take and not give back in whatever way I can.
There is a sort of plateau and also an eagerness to continue exploring because after every plateau there is a climb. I’ve continued to stick to the basic sequences in the Preliminary course and it is manageable within the chaos of my daily life.
It’s been an interesting few days of practice at home. One day of practice with a DVD by Geetaji, another day of supta padangushtasana and variations and a split practice between morning and evening.
Lately, I’ve just been focusing on the standing asanas since I am learning but perhaps I also need to add what my body needs. Supta padangushtasana was one of the first asanas that I learnt when I started and it helped when my running load had increased. Surya namaskars and backbends gave me strength and I have slowly introduced them in my regular practice albeit intermittently. These days they feel like effort, it seems like I could do more, especially in Supta padangushtasana which feels very gross despite using the belt. It is only after a few repetitions that my legs calm a bit to be able to get the actions required.
I’ve taken on a project to become a faster runner and that brings all my structural imbalances to the surface. Shin splints, sore knees and lower back have made a comeback. I’m tempted to give up on this endeavour since it is just a personal quest to see how far I can go. From a sane perspective, it seems foolish to push the body but I feel that learning through my experiences, injuries and remedies will help me understand how yoga can enhance running. Although, if it comes to a choice between the two, there is really no question. Then why do I still run?
Running taught me the niyamas although I saw it as such much later.
sauca– through sweat santosha– through the calm after a run tapah– through showing up on the road swadhyaya– through journalling my experience ishvara pranidana– through trusting the process
It seems very simplistic to put it all in the context of running but that was my start. Today, the niyamas are a little differently understood but that base of building a habit translated into a state of receptiveness to a new way of living.
For instance, Sauca has translated into something that includes some of the traditional practices of Ayurveda regarding food and lifestyle, having a regular practice, getting rid of clutter, reading that which enriches and chanting the sutras/shlokas. Some days I cannot do everything, family and work require me to be part of social activities and I go along. At times, these days slide into a week or more and then the call from inside becomes a loud cry. So, I come back and get back one step at a time.
Overall though, it has been a shift in the way I live my life and maybe some of it has rubbed off on my family too.
There is no substitute for hard work, abhyasa. While there was willingness to work, there wasn’t enough mental resilience to persist. In retrospect, it was not having a base of physical health and well being that made the mind crumble at the first sign of resistance.
My road to yoga came through pain and it is only through pain that healing was able to commence. The neck tractions would be agonizing while I was having them but it gave relief after. I could not rotate my shoulders behind without being in tremendous pain. But I practiced until one evening at home, there was a loud and painful click which made me stop where I was and just stay. After a couple of minutes, I found that my shoulders were pain free and I could rotate them without any discomfort. It felt magical and was a nudge to show me that the point was to practice sincerely. The physical benefits were a foregone conclusion, the real benefit was building mental strength.
Through regular practice, I gained the benefits of a sense of wellbeing and health. This allowed for a certain level of calmness to start noticing patterns- physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. In my mother tongue, there is a word called “nanni” which translates into grateful thanks. That was my overwhelming feeling at the end of class.
Some days the enthusiasm flags and the effort required to keep the practice fresh is tiring. That usually happens when my study work is slacking. So I get back to the tools of reading and writing which usually gets me back on track. Sometimes it is too much seriousness and then I need to find the lightness to laugh at myself. Sometimes it is letting go of a rigid attitude towards practice. A daily inventory helps me see the adjustments I need to make in my mental posture.
It is easy to slide back and lose sight of the yamas and niyamas without devoting a certain amount of time to study everyday.
Come weekends and the family needs my attention so I put away my reading, writing and studying. I enjoy the time spent with them and feel blessed to have what I do. At the same time, I also see how the mind starts to wander. Regular study maintains the discipline to stick to the path come what may.
My family thinks I am a yoga fanatic now. Yet they can see the small changes. My older girl remarked that she didn’t know when I started my cycle because I didn’t have one of the typical PMS crankiness that pops up every month without fail. The husband started going to a class a couple of months ago. Somewhere even they have experienced the changes that yoga brings for themselves.
I just have a huge sense of gratitude for the relief from pain that I used to experience. Even greater than that is the thankfulness I feel for finding the direction I was seeking. Reading my earlier notes, I see how my understanding is changing as I stick to the journey. Increasingly I find that a goal is not as necessary as much as the journey is.