Reflection on Yama

A conversation earlier in the day made me think of how the foremost precept in medicine or yoga is ‘Do no harm’. It also ties in with the first of the great vows.

I finished reading the yamas in the book (Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali) and have been reflecting on their mahavrata nature. It has been some time since I sat with different sets of contemplation, like vrittis or kleshas etc. Coming around to it now, it strikes me how different this reading has been. Repetition and a consciousness of these ideas have seeped through the mind over the years and let understanding evolve differently- almost as a gentle undercurrent, not seen but felt both deeper and wider. Moral dilemmas and ethical concerns now start to be examined with consideration and not in absolute terms. There is clarity at the existing level while also a consciousness of a subtler layer that would need a different application. 

Yamas are commonly regarded as restraints, injunctions or observances. But the sutra says these are ‘sarvabhauma mahavratam’, universal great vows. Implicit in its resounding sureness is its absolute nature, the highest standard. In the order of the sutras, yama and niyama are placed before asana and pranayama, yet we always begin at asana. We begin where we are, how we are. It doesn’t matter if one is returning after a long gap or is a complete novice. It has been one of the most beautiful aspects of yoga and Iyengar yoga in particular. It reminds me of artists who painstakingly create sand sculptures on a beach, fully aware that a wave will wash over it and there will be nothing left. What if we could be both artist and sculpture, fully devoted to making our lives as beautiful in a spirit of service with the full awareness of our transience? What if we could truly embrace aparigraha? This last one has caught my attention this time as the book invites considering why the phala of this particular yama is a knowledge of one’s past and future lives.

In one of his classes last week, Prashantji mentioned that “the embodiment is like a text book” and that like textbooks which are read repeatedly, one needs to learn to read one’s own embodiment. The yamas speak differently now, a little less rigidly despite their almost thunderous injunction of non-negotiability. If there is one thing this pandemic has taught us, it has been that we never know another completely and so do not have the context of their choices. 

These have been days of reflection, mulling over the question of how best do I apply the principles of ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha in my life. There are no easy answers for the likes of me, caught in the spin of everyday living. At best, it is a thin watered down version of what Sage Patanjali might have had in mind. The more I read, the more I realize how woefully insufficient it is to rely on translations alone. One needs to understand the language in which it was written, the health of our embodiments before considering yog. No wonder the need for the trifecta of treatises on grammar, medicine and yoga. No wonder the need to invoke samarthyam like Srineet mentioned in one of his classes. Ability and a worthiness, both of which the likes of us have to develop over a long, uninterrupted abhyas. Sometimes, it does feel like seeing through a kaleidoscope, the tumble of pieces throwing a different kind of connective pattern every single time.

Endless the possibilities.

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.

A wandering student

My evenings have a new routine. Most days, I spend an hour at a park watching the tableau of life play out. Children playing, birds picking their branches for the night, adults walking, older people watching over grandchildren, lovers snatching a cozy conversation and so on. Sometimes I write or read but mostly I just watch the sun as it dips behind tree tops.

Underneath a tamarind tree

I miss watching the sunrise from my new place and the sparrows still haven’t found the bird feeder yet. There are a couple of stray kittens that have stolen my heart and it feels good to shower love with such abandon. The roses continue to bloom as do the jasmines with their heady night scents. The season is beautiful with cool winds and a touch of music as the heart meets the head.

We call him muttbaby 1

In the Iyengar yoga world, there is much excitement with the centenary celebrations and I do hope to make it for atleast one of the days. But, mostly, my offering has been quiet study and fledgling practice. The surprising thing has been the powerful recall of cell memory as I get on the mat.

The Gita continues to be a trusted companion and in the lines I have read many times, I rediscover their beauty all over again albeit with a different flavour. Our interpretations are always coloured by life experiences, always a cumulative of all moments until now.

An alternate set of circumstances has shown a different translation of the same meanings. A year of painful transition or perhaps transformation, only time will tell. For now, it’s a slow beginning once more with nothing the same and everything just so.

I’ve been drawn to the imagery of Patanjali as half man and it has been a focus of contemplation. What does it mean to be human? The bodily representation. of Patanjali as man consists of the trunk resting on the coils of his serpentine half. An ascension of energies possible in a physical structure. A lightness of being in the denseness of existence.

I remain a wandering student destined for self-study and it’s just beginning to dawn on me that maybe it’s liberating. Of course, it also means a lot of wrong turns and a longer time to learn but the journey is worth it. But, it wouldn’t be possible without the wisdom and generosity of knowledge of the giants who came before me. I remain indebted to my many teachers.

Hari Om

Maitri, Karuna, Mudita, Upeksha

I’ve been loathe to write here for a couple of reasons, one of them being a big shift in life and the other a hesitation to jump to hasty conclusions. Suffice to say, my readings have taken on a more practical colour as I seem to receive messages that are congruent. It is easy to latch on to what I perceive as signs so I just observe and record.

One of my anchors through my yoga journey has been Sutra 1:33 and I’ve always looked at just the four attitudes of maitri, karuna, mudita and upeksha. I didn’t quite spend time on the remaining part of the Sutra. I didn’t look at the phala of the attitudes or the occasions to practise the habits.

It seemed like a good idea to explore the different interpretations of this aphorism and I pulled out all the commentaries I had with me. Each of them threw the spotlight on a different portion of the sutra.

Chitta prasadanam as opposed to chitta vikshepa from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by B.K.S. Iyengar

Bhavanata versus Abhyasata from Light on Vyasa Bhashya by Prashant Iyengar

Upeksha as equanimity in meaning versus the common translation as indifference from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Edwin F. Bryant

The four attitudes as a representation of parinama chitta and kutastha chitta from Core of the Yoga Sutras by B.K.S. Iyengar

All in all, a very illuminating morning of study. In the commentaries by Guruji and Prashantji, I found the approach is more lateral and explorative while the one by Edwin Bryant is more direct and translative. I took back something from both and know that I will come back for more. It remains my favourite sutra and perhaps the one I would retain if I could choose but one. As an ordinary woman, it offers me the potential to soar even as it shows me how to be in this world but not of it.

Closer to my experience, I discovered that even while I thought I was failing, there was the solidity of practice (not so much asana as the study of the texts and their contemplation). It gave me the strength I needed to go through a very difficult patch and maintain a sense of steadiness even as there was upheaval, mental and emotional. I received courage to stand in tadasana in my life even as the ground below me trembled.

I remain indebted to the teachings of the ancient ones as well as the Gurus in my heart and all those who have shared their journeys generously.

Hari Om

Spiralling…

I haven’t been to regular class in a few weeks but a phrase from one of those has been simmering for a while. The spiral of practice. It’s a bit strange to think about practice when one is not ‘practising’ but this pause has been about letting go or rather letting the ‘letting go’ happen. 
Some of the things that troubled me along the way and prevented me from accepting the situation were
– How could I let this happen to me? I should have known better, after all I was practising. 

– How do I face the ‘I told you so’s’ from all those who said running is bad for the knees? And that too, when I vehemently protested and sang about the bliss of a run.

– How could I put my poor knees through so much violence? So much for the yamas. So much ego.

– I should have listened to all that thick and heavy feeling in the right side which was a constant during my running period. 

– Ageing with or without disease is scary. Imagine having to depend on others!

– I faulted on a regular discipline of many things that were built over a period of time. However will I get back?

All of it was about me and mine, not about how things actually are. So much self obsession. 😊

Some of the learnings from this experience has been to
– Reach out for help. Ask. And then ask again. (This was perhaps the hardest)

– A favourite quote still holds true, ‘Fall down 7 times, get up 8’

– There is always a silver lining.

– The most important is Guruji’s wisdom about enduring what cannot be cured and curing what need not be endured.

I’m happy despite an erosion of a lot of activities that I took for granted. They may come back or maybe not (the husband insists that I will run again 😊) but as long as a spirit of curiosity remains, life is beautiful. I missed the exploration of asana in a home practice and found a spark of that in yesterday’s remedial class. Now, there’s a general direction of action that I can try out. One of the interesting things about yesterday was the body’s initial resistance to trouble an irritated area and the response of the mind to surrender to the teacher’s touch or more like a strong prod. 😊In my head and heart, it’s a complete surrender and part of it also springs from the sureness of her touch. 
Coming back to the ‘spiral of practice’ as our teacher elaborated, it is about the change in perspective of a particular asana through the spiral of time and space. A coming back to the same central axis at a higher perspective. The pose at the beginning of a practice or as a novice and one at the end of a practice or with a few years of experience. Now, there’s a new dimension of a pose before, through and after injury/ chronic condition. Although, that might take a while. And the irony is it is not about asana at all! 
I found this visual image of a spiral to be true in many disciplines. The secrets reveal themselves as you go through a process of repetition and refinement. It makes me think of Sage Patanjali’s coiled tail rising upwards into the pinnacle of enlightenment and the galaxies. Much is to be said for the rich symbolism of our deities and the fathomless universe. 

I remain grateful for a tumultuous year that has churned many set notions and thrown up unexpected gifts. I did have my moments of doubt, sadness and fear but it’s hard to stay down for too long when life is beautiful. Perhaps, it’s just the airy, fairy vata that keeps me from getting too tethered.😊Today’s home practice was a throwback to early tentative attempts at mimicking what I would learn in class and it felt good to play once again. 
In gratitude to Guruji and his sadhana that made hope possible.
Hari Om

Food & play

Iyengar yoga is known for its alignment, precision, long holds in asana. The second class was one of play as we moved repeatedly, waking up sleepy muscles of body and mind. It doesn’t happen often in class since the Institute follows a syllabus and it is geared towards systematically developing a practice for oneself. But, as our teacher said, “and sometimes you should play like children also“, as we moved back and forth in pawanmuktasana and did reps of halasana, paschimottanasana. It leaves a different taste after such a practice, lighter.

As my other teacher mentioned during our introduction, class is like a thaali (a multi course Indian meal), where many dishes are served till the point of bursting. There is no time to savour the rasa individually like we do with food prepared at home. It is a home practice which allows us to taste the flavours in each asana.

Back to lessons from the universe, coincidentally one of my readings was

भूरिति वै प्राण:। भुव इत्यपान:।सुवरिति व्यान:।

मह इत्यन्नम्। अन्नेन वाव सर्वे प्राणा महीयन्ते।।५।।

Bhuh is prana. Bhuvah is apana. Suvah is vyana. Mahah is food. Indeed, it is by food that the pranas thrive. (Translation by Swami Chinmayananda)

It is interesting to see and experience the role of food in our lives. The Annamaya kosha is the outermost sheath and nourished by food. What is food, though? There is a lot of ‘information’ available out there but the ‘knowledge’ about is pretty scarce. Much of it has faded from our lives alongwith the older generation. Ayurveda has it’s food rules and at one time, it was common knowledge as people turned to their kitchens for preventive and curative medicine. Food was prepared as an offering before being consumed. The traditional prepping methods released the benefits in a way that was most suitable. There was no complication of a ‘diet’. People ate what was native to their region, in season and prepared in the way of their ancestors. There was an order in which it was consumed for the best absorption and assimilation. Food was meant to nourish and sustain and it was in sync with the prakriti of a person. At the end of the day, it was a subjective exercise, like yoga. 

The general rules provides a framework but the magic is in self exploration. It’s an ongoing experience as I discover much about my misconceptions with food and begin to see my place in the circle of life, like in the movie, The Lion King.

It never fails to amaze me how astute the sages were. They codified everything as it is while we complicate matters with analysis and research. As Paul Coelho says in The Alchemist, it is the Language of the World. Or as Patanjali states, ‘Words, objects and ideas are superimposed, creating confusion; by samyama, one gains knowledge of the language of all beings.’ (Translation by BKS Iyengar)

In gratitude 

Green shoots

Maybe it’s the monsoons that will touch our skies soon, maybe it’s the pregnant shoots waiting to break through parched earth that quickens my heart. It’s been too long since I fell from grace into a barren landscape of the heart and spirit. And really, all I had to do was go back to the very first sutra that caught my attention. 1.33. 

I’m glad that this period of apathy, angst and powerlessness happened. It has been a good lesson to go back to the basics. Progress, evolution and going inwards is not complicated, it is the very opposite. It’s the simplicity of a child’s heart. 

I had a relapse of the spirit, where almost all of the little actions that were cultivated and nurtured over time dropped off one by one, until a few shreds remained. Daily practices like japa, reading, writing and even regular blogging slipped into erratic and irregular occurrences. It became difficult to start all over again and I tried and failed. Many times. I felt sad and sorry for myself, at being a failure. Fallen from grace- grace of the Guru and a Power greater than myself. Yet, the mat gave me it’s blessings the few times I unrolled it. Despite my earlier studies and little understanding from my readings of the masters, I didn’t see the play of the gunas. Veiled in dust, smoke… In retrospect, I smile. I am grateful for the fall. I forgot that the earth is always there to embrace me and that she brings life to seemingly dead things with the advent of the rains. The elements continue to fascinate with their endless symbolism.

As a little exploration, I went back to a couple of sutras before my favourite one. 

व्याधिस्त्यानसंशयप्रमादालस्यविरतिभ्रान्तिदर्शनालब्धभूमिकत्वानवस्थितत्वानि चित्तविक्षेपास्तेऽन्तराया: ।३०।

दु:खदौर्मनस्याङ्गमेजयत्वश्वासप्रश्वासा विक्षेपसहभुव: ।३१।

These two sutras ennumerate a laundry list of obstacles and I’ve experienced each one of them painfully. It is definitely not the first instance and I’m pretty sure it’s not the last. But in hindsight, I can see that the same experience wouldn’t have felt so terrible a few years back. As time passes, what passed off once does not do so now. The list of obstructions include disease, lack of interest or sluggishness, lingering doubt, pride or carelessness, idleness, sense gratification, living in a world of delusion, lack of perseverance, inability to maintain the progress attained due to pride or stagnation in practices. Sorrow, despair, unsteadiness of the body and irregular breathing complete the list. (from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Guruji)

After stating the way to prevent these obstacles, the next sutras outline many ways to remove and prevent them. That’s the set from 1:33 to 1:39. 

Time to start making little scribbles in this copy…

Somewhere, I sense the festering sores of my spirit are beginning to heal. My heart feels lighter and open to receive again. I may be wrong but now I feel my knee will be healed completely soon and I will be able to run free again. Back to kissing the earth with my bare feet and feeling the wind in my hair. Speaking of the wind, perhaps I am a child of the air. Too long in the water or tied down and I am lost. 

A special thanks to K8 for brightening my dark road with her kind words. Life also gives what we need. It’s a blessing to have Amma with me currently as she gets her cataracts sorted. Having to care for her is the best way to start climbing out of the hole I dug for myself. 🙂 It’s ironic that the sun has started to shine for me now that it is time for him to hide behind the clouds. 

There is much to be happy. My beloved institute will be open soon and I can go back to start all over again. And blogging feels like it is out of its slump. In gratitude.

Hari Om

Rupa-Lavanya-Bala

It’s been a lacklustre few days with respect to asana practice. Barely anything except a few poses for supporting the odd runs. Reading and writing have also taken a backseat and it’s sheer lethargy that prevents the sharp edge of practice.

However, I have been working on a few strength training exercises to run fast. It’s purely muscular work and something I never did despite being told by experienced runners. I find that I have no strength to do really basic stuff, no bala! That’s why some of the asanas also feel very difficult. Cervical spondylosis was responsible for keeping certain kinds of movements out of my reach but now I find that there have been certain shifts in the body and mind. That changes the playing field. 

Rupa, lavanya and bala are qualities that are the measure of the perfect equipment, the body. 

As the sutra says, रूपलावण्यबलवज्रसंहननत्वानि कायसंपत् ।।४६।।

Form, grace and strength of body, mind and heart that is like vajra. I am not sure of the meaning of the term, it is used to refer to Indra’s  thunderbolt as well as a diamond. The attributes of vajra would be hard, brilliant, sharp, powerful etc. One of the stories in the puranas recounts how the vajra was created from the bones of Sage Dadeechi. It is interesting to note that the powerful weapon of a God came out of a human. That’s the potential for perfection possible in the human embodiment. Of course, the tapas required for that kind of perfection would be beyond what we can imagine.

If I muse on the order of qualities in the context of asana, it makes sense as well. First, we learn the rupa (form/ structure/ framework) of the pose, after which we learn lavanya (grace) in execution of the asana without any agitation. Then we use the bala (strength) to stay, to endure. This will come when the effort becomes effortless. Refined strength. Prayatna Shatilyatha. 

Vajranga… master of the siddhis

The ebbs of practice teach me that there are no excuses not to practice. There is strength that is present within that comes from a much greater power. It seemed fitting to learn arm balances in today’s class. The same palms that join in prayer can also carry the weight of this body. Tadasana in our palms too!

Hari Om

Bloomers and a mat

12641 km away from home yet I am at home. All it takes is a mat, bloomers and few books to recreate a familiar space. It’s been luxurious to take my time with asana practice. Yesterday was a couple of hours going through one of the latter sequences in the preliminary course book. Today was exploring the standing asanas from the intermediate course book. One was a quick run through all the categories of asanas while the other was to work a little more intensively. I do miss the fire of a class but the book is a good substitute and if the soreness is any indication, I have worked well. Perhaps, having to be my own teacher is good to learn to pay attention rather than wait for a teacher to draw focus. 

I’m deeply grateful for being given an opportunity to witness nature’s glory in all her brilliance. It’s humbling to see the wheels of time and the wisdom of nature do their thing. The fall colours in Canada are stunning. 

Fall glory

Today’s reading was 10:34. I miss my copy of the Gita with the commentary but I suppose being without any support is good to flex those inner mental muscles. The translation I have reads as follows

 I am death, destroyer of all; I am the source of all things yet to be. Of women I am fame, prosperity, speech, memory, intelligence, fortitude and forbearance. 

The feminine qualities mentioned are all aspects of sustenance and constant change, the function typically assigned to Lord Vishnu. One of the sutras has been on a constant loop in my head and this shloka is a beautiful accompaniment to Patanjali’s aphorism from the Vibhuti Pada.

एतेन भूतेन्द्रियेषु धर्मलक्षणावस्थापरिणामा व्याख्याकाता:।।१३।।

Through these three phases, cultured consciousness is transformed from its potential state (dharma) towards further refinement (lakshana) and the zenith of refinement (avastha). In this way, the transformation of elements, senses and mind take place.

Prakriti in all her complexity is also the means to Purusha. 

Palm reader?

Invoke

Beautifully decorated sculpture of Sage Patanjali at RIMYI

Let us bow before the noblest of sages, Patanjali, who gave yoga for serenity and sanctity of mind, grammar for clarity and purity of speech, and medicine for perfection of health.

Let us prostrate before Patanjali, an incarnation of Adisesa, whose upper body has a human form, whose arms hold a conch and a disc, and who is crowned by a thousand-headed cobra.

– Translation from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by B.KS. Iyengar

Every class begins with the traditional invocation to Sage Patanjali. I find that the cues to adjust the body to prepare for chanting often indicate the locus of the teaching for that day. Sometimes the arms, sometimes the back or the shoulders but always the chest, without fail. The heart and soul of our practice.

There is a transcript of Geetaji’s explanation on the invocation and the reason behind the tradition. She beautifully explains the symbolism behind the individual aspects. Most of the mantras, shlokas, chants etc. are rich in imagery and paint multi sensory forms of the divine. Usually sung as praises, it is bhakti bubbling over in inspired poetry. The form or appearance of the deity becomes a beacon in one’s sadhana. Recitation with shraddha makes the divine form one’s ishta devata.

Adisesa, in his avatar as Sage Patanjali bears the conch and discus. Both these objects are associated with Lord Krishna and commonly used in the texts. The conch as a clarion call to wake up from the delusion of the limited self is nothing but the Lord’s grace. The discus is the sharp edge of sadhana that cuts and refines. It is the instrument used to call his devoted bhaktas who have forgotten their true selves. Perhaps, these powerful symbols gain potency as their syllables roll off one’s tongue. In the translation above, “yoga for serenity and sanctity of mind, grammar for clarity and purity of speech” suggests the universally accepted truth of thoughts becoming words which express themselves in action.

The invocation brings the image of the beautiful sculptures of Sage Patanjali before me as I recite it. It inspires a burning desire to learn and offer everything back to my teachers. It gets me out of my way.  There is much to reflect in the short prayer besides how lovely it sounds. The syllables roll off the tongue with an easy familiarity and yet seem fresh and new each time they are articulated. An offering of all that I am, flawed though it be, in unconditional surrender.

Pranami Patanjalim