Limitless

Prashantji’s classes are like an arc. It’s not a class in the sense that one is used to but more in the nature of a tasting followed by long cooking of precepts and principles. Asana time is barely half an hour in a 120 minute session but it is not easy by any means. And yet, the few asanas that I experienced were an unfolding. Despite no sequencing, no ‘warm up’ or staccato instructions of skeleton-muscular adjustments, there was a quietness and longevity of asanas by skilful use of breath and mind. I also see why some years need to pass to be able to develop sensitivity or perhaps I am simply slow to grasp.  

During one of the sessions, he spoke about practising in such a way today that we can practice in the future too. It resonated quite loudly with me. Just a few days ago, I was thinking about how I spent over 2 years in therapy class for my knees. All I did was mostly prone or supine asanas which eventually made it possible for me to be pain free and walk long, sit cross legged etc. It also prepared me for loss and losing, age and ageing and most of all to treat all of life as a preparation for dying well.

On the very first day of the session, he asked us to consider what the basics of Iyengar yoga meant. The first thought that sprung up was that it was to “live happily and die majestically” as Guruji said. Most of us are conditioned to say alignment, precision, sequencing but those are simply the starting point or building blocks. The magic starts when you deconstruct the ‘rules’, break them and start teaching yourself, learning yourself. Yoga is heuristic after all. After a period of time, there is an intuitive intelligence of the embodiment that adjusts organically if you can get the rigidity of the mind’s conditioning out of the way.  

Today’s session was a continuation of what may be viewed as a weaving of the ‘Strands of Body, Mind and Breath’. I couldn’t help but think of the strands of sattva, rajas and tamas through the very life force of the universe. Both- limitless. These sessions are like a tasting, an invitation to sip and make mental notes and bodily imprints. The class today was a kind of opening into understanding the intense transformational period many months ago. I have tasted the biochemistry of asanas although I do not know the hows and whys of it.

Prashantji began the class talking about exploring the chemical changes of asanas and how to approach them. The more time I spend as a practitioner of yoga (and I don’t mean asana alone, it also includes other sadhanas outside of the mat), the more comfortable I get with staying with not knowing. It allows for a receiving which is given as a benediction. This week has been fascinating and I’m looking forward to going back to the basics yet again and seeing them through a different lens. Somewhere, the desire for asana proficiency has been replaced by asana curiosity and in the bargain, I’ve begun to see the limitlessness despite our constraints. As a runner, I had too much to lose and then I lost it. As a yoga practitioner, even if I lose everything, there will still be Savasana as long as there is breath in the body.  

Last week in one of my regular classes, we approached malasana through different routes and it was again that same touch of limitlessness. Malasana is a beautiful pose, named after the garland it resembles. Floral garlands are an intrinsic part of Indian rituals and traditions, from weddings to pujas to inaugurations and felicitations. In traditional Indian weddings, there is an exchange of var malas. The garlands themselves range from simple to elaborate ones but their place in the ceremony remains similar. The act of garlanding is a mutual one, a receiving as well as a giving. Old stories speak about swayamvara where a woman chose her partner and indicated her choice by garlanding the suitor. Now, the exchange is a mutual one signifying acceptance of each other as life partners.

Taking possession of a new vehicle is often accompanied by the breaking of a coconut and a garland on the car. Deities are worshipped with malas, usually of flowers said to be dear to them. The entrance of houses are decorated with torans, especially during festivals and special guests are honoured with a flower garland.

In a way, the act of garlanding is a deeply mindful one of acknowledging the other and their part in our lives. In order to complete the circuit, there’s also a corresponding receiving of the offering. I suppose it is simply mimicking the endless cycles in nature, a continuous reciprocal acting. That class had malasana and its different scents through various forward extensions. While there is a certain proficiency in some of the asanas at a beginner level, there is also the awareness that asana practice is a continuum. As I stretch and find resistance in the body or unwillingness, I see corresponding holding back of the mind. I see how the breath and thought process in those situations are similar in life off the mat. There is acknowledgement of working within the constraints of bodily limitations and walking the tightrope of pushing forward and holding back. It’s interesting to see how some ‘difficult’ asanas are easier than the easy ones, the continuum of practice is a shifting one.

The beauty of this art is that there is never an end to its learning and discovering the limitlessness of the embodiment’s capability. Body, mind and consciousness stretching into infinity or compressing into nothingness. Both exist simultaneously. In the final malasana of that morning, there was an experience of that garlanding, equal parts giving and receiving. One of the shifts that has happened has been a receiving of where I am right now, whether capability or capacity. An ‘all is well’ regardless of the challenges that have been cropping up and they have been many and unrelenting. There has been displacement of routine thanks to some crazy amount of time on the road but despite that, I’ve managed to unroll my mat and join the sessions. One of the blessings of a pandemic has been access to classes regardless of where one might be.

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. 🙂

Aparigraha in a pandemic

Guruji was born during an influenza epidemic and his life was a difficult one for many decades. Even his early yoga journey was fraught with pain and hardship. He lived through pre-Independence India, poverty, ill health, loss, fame and prosperity. The one constant through it all was yoga and his sadhana went on to make him a household name. Despite all the accolades, he remained a student of the subject till the very end. Yoga was him and he was yoga. Period. For the likes of me, it is not as complete an immersion but we try to the best of our life situations.

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This morning I spent time with Pada 2 of the sutras and came back to 2.39 on aparigraha. Reflecting on it, I saw that it was basically talking about de-conditioning.

Quoting from the commentary in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,

Aparigraha means not only non-possession and non-acceptance of gifts, but also freedom from rigidity of thought. Holding on to one’s thoughts is also a form of possessiveness, and thoughts, as well as material possessions should be shunned. Otherwise they leave strong impressions on the consciousness and become seeds to manifest in future lives.”

Aparigraha is the subtlest aspect of yama, and difficult to master. Yet, repeated attempts must be made to gain pure knowledge of ‘what I am’ and ‘what I am meant for’.”

Constant inquiry is an integral part of learning yoga at RIMYI, it’s always dynamic and evolving. Never static and despite the curriculum remaining the same, the approach and teaching incorporate new elements. In a more personal context, I am reminded of what my teacher said about ‘seeds of weeds’. By working beyond just the apparent relief of body and heart, there was a reset in established patterns of thought and behaviour, a rewiring. That the mind can be addressed through the body is now internalized knowledge and not just theoretical.

It’s easy to get caught in fixed ways of thinking and feeling both on and off the mat and this clinging on prevents one from a deeper understanding of any situation. I also see it in asana as I explore beyond the actions required to assume a pose. As long as I am just repeating the instructions I have learned, I limit myself. Of course, the initial repetition is essential to internalize the method but the unfolding is in the personalizing of its interpretation. A bit like improvisation in music. Once you learn the notes and practise the scales for a suitable length of time, you can break the rules to explore and then the subject begins to also teach you.

I still remain cautious in asana but there’s an experimental feel to it as I correlate lessons from class and home practice. This week both the classes worked actively with the groin area and today’s home practice was a passive exploration of the same region from my knee therapy routine. And it taught differently. It got me thinking about how right from day 1 of a beginner’s class, the body is systematically prepared to open to its fullest capacity, literally and figuratively. Strangely, I found the beginner’s class harder than the intermediate one and it made me glad that I chose to retain the former. I guess I’m probably always going to remain a chronic beginner.

Asanas take up a small part of my day and its lessons are not about the body’s ability or progress as much as it is about mental, emotional and spiritual stretching. It is about endurance, resilience, patience, fortitude, good humour, playfulness, compassion and a whole host of other traits that allow us to live through good times and rough times with the same steadiness. These times are despairing with both a pandemic and mindless human violence. But there also exists solidarity and kindness that unite people even in these uncertain days. It may seem unbearable at the moment but all periods of transformation are difficult, individually and collectively. Eventually, we see that old ways have to evolve and adapt to meet the changing needs of a present and it calls for aparigraha. Now more so than ever.

De-conditioning

Five years ago, I was a new student at RIMYI, excited and nervous. Prior to applying, I scoured the internet to understand more about what I could expect as a beginner and found that there was very little for a rookie. Most of the material was written by those who had been practicing for a long time, many of them senior teachers in the system. It was also interesting to note that there was more material by international practitioners than by Indian ones. Five years since then, I’ve been a regular student at the Institute and still feel the same excitement at the start of a new academic year. It seems a bit surreal to have a virtual session considering how much physical adjustments have been an essential part of learning and therapy. And uncannily, the thought for June from last year’s calendar is ‘Yoga is deconditioning’.

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RIMYI shut down early March and the break from a teacher led learning forced me to pay more attention to exploring rather than just practicing. Most days, there would be some kind of a general direction be it standing poses, or forward extensions etc. But lately, it became exploration of a class of bodily regions like the groins in say Supta Padangushtasana 2 and Ardha Chandrasana. The actions themselves have begun to be less forceful and aggressive and softer in the nature of a curious watching. In the bargain, I find that I move further in the pose with less effort. I spend less time overall but it feels more intense.

Up until last year, I felt like Eklavya (here’s an earlier post) on the fringes of class, never reaching out or being part of the community. I stayed deep inside my limited self, terribly tongue-tied and hesitant to ask for help or answers. That began to change slowly although I still tended to lurk in the shadows at the back. But my teachers drew me out and I started to learn to loosen up.

In the last five years, my body went through different phases of fitness, injury, rehabilitation and health. Along the way, I discovered pride, arrogance, impatience, fragility, willingness, resilience and a host of other traits, some useful, others not so desirable. I’m not a hardcore practitioner and there are days I skip because of a day going unruly or then plain procrastination but not for too long. However, there was a time I was incapable of getting on the mat for days. It’s no longer guilt over not practicing but a need to set right the mind that brings me back to work with the body. Yoga is forgiving that way. No matter how long one is away, there is always a renewal and muscle memory is quick to activate.

The sutras enumerate the 9 obstacles and 4 distractions and also provide a choice of techniques to address them. But I was too far gone at one point to help myself through their use provided in the subsequent sutras (1.34-1.39). All I did was surrender completely to my teachers and go where they sent me. In retrospect, it was a single deep rooted surrender to this age old science and art. I believed if anything could help me navigate the difficult spaces of my life, it would be yoga. It’s been more than half a year since then and I’m still just about discovering bits and pieces of what happened during those terribly painful sessions. I’ve been revisiting some of my notes from then and it seems like another life. I remember my rough days simply to remind myself to be gentle with others, especially in these times. And so it circles back to my favourite sutra, 1.33.

This morning’s class was such a different one, from the home of my teacher to the homes of all of us students. We worked with basic asanas but in Iyengar yoga fashion, explored them differently, some of them not really asanas as much as a variation of possible movements till a tipping point, literally and figuratively. The Zoom avatar of class is an internal one, devoid of any performative aspect that shows up in a hall full of people. It feels almost like an individual class with just the teacher’s video on screen. In a way, it is a guided self-practice than a class, more inward looking with fewer distractions.

In the confines of my room or out in the woods, I can shut the madly careening world out. There’s much distress out there. As I type, there’s a cyclone making its way to the west coast of this country, one of the worst afflicted as far as the pandemic is concerned. We’ve already had Cyclon Amphan wreak its wrath on the east coast and locusts in the northwest besides the terrible plight of migrant workers trudging home in the most punishing of seasons. Halfway around the world, ignorance and deep rooted biases destroy lives alongside a virus. And through all this Mother Nature continues to adjust and reset indifferent to the fears and anxieties of her human children.

Personally, some of my life plans have had to be indefinitely postponed but there is a calm acceptance of a changed reality. It has also helped me re-calibrate my life to retain what really matters. I remain incredibly grateful for the privilege of safe shelter, food on the table, a stable mind and the ability to provide for my family. Guruji’s words ‘Live happily, Die majestically’ are even more relevant than ever with the awareness of the fragility and uncertainty of life. And as my teacher said today we can’t defeat the virus, we can try to dodge it as best as we can. Simple food, good rest and good exercise is pretty much all that we need, the rest has been non-essential as a 10 week lockdown has shown us.

Destruction

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you would’ve been privy to the months of a dark night of the soul. I was incapable of maintaining any but the bare minimum to get through my days. While I anticipated a rough ride, nothing could have prepared me for the enormity of grief. Mostly, it sprung from a deep sense of loss. Over time, we become attached to our habits, people, places until they become dead weight. But by then, we’ve invested too much time, effort and ourselves to be able to hit the reset button. So, we carry on, accumulating diseases of the body, mind and heart until it chokes us.

We are taught to create, grow, sustain but never how to destroy. And that too is an essential part of the cycle of life. Birth, growth, decay, death and rebirth. We see it in nature, in the way seasons die out to receive the next one, in the way day ends in night, in the way the hunted becomes food for the predator and so on. But we live our human lives averse to the creative potential of destruction. We embrace the joyful and exciting but not the pain and despair but that too is such an essential part of being human, the capacity to embrace pain as we do pleasure.

I see a mirror in the current pandemic, the laying waste of a way of life, flawed though it be. Much pain, horror, hardship, death and desolation cutting across geographies and people. These are difficult times, no doubt, but I also believe in the resilience of our species which will pick up the pieces and rebuild. In the course of volunteering as well as in my work, I hear experts talk about various future scenarios, usually through the lens of their specific domains. While there’s a great deal of information available and conversation that happens on current issues, truth is no one really knows and we have an inbuilt fear of uncertainty. In Light on Life, Guruji mentions, “learning to live with uncertainty is the great art of living” and that couldn’t be more apt in these times of anxiety and fear.

In such a world, how does yoga help? I can only speak for myself when I say it keeps my life in the right proportion. Yoga practice becomes the Serenity Prayer in action. On the mat, my presence remains confined to the time spent on it, working with acceptance, change and discrimination. As my body takes the forms of poses, I find a suspension of my roles and concerns of the world at large and the attempt to find integration of mind, body and breath.  Later, I think about how can one bring that same cohesion to our individual problems and collective ones? And I find myself drifting back to my favourite sutra, 1.33, as the healing a wounded species so desperately needs.

Yog Sutra 1.33 – “Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy, and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favourably disposed, serene and benevolent.” – Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by B K S Iyengar

 

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and in the midst of all else in the world, there is a riot of summer flowers…