Word of the year

It has been long since I wrote a blog post. Correction. I wrote many but shifted it into my notes instead. Perhaps, it was a sense of sharing that happened within a physically virtual world rather than reflections broadcast to an invisible world. But when I go back to the reasons for beginning this web notebook, I feel the need to document the ongoing unfolding.

Every year, I have a word. 2021’s word was Guruji. At the beginning of the year, I read a lot about his life, experiences of other people etc. and it was evident that most of them had covered his life from sickly teenager to yogacharya extensively. I thought I could make my own notes and as the year progressed found myself pivoting time and time again to what Prashantji mentions, ‘Iyengar’s yoga’. At year’s end, I see how that word shaped a lot of my everyday living. The word ‘Guruji’ became my reference point of responses to life situations.

2021 continued to be a pandemic year and one of many unexpected changes in my personal life. There was travel, closures and new beginnings and an overall ease even in stressful situations. If there has to be one significant discovery, it was that I found how to make time elastic. I have my teachers to thank for this change. Asanas are wonderful props to make acquaintance with oneself. I learned to stay in uncomfortable situations and watch thoughts and emotions rise and respond with ease. There was space for decisions to be made without reacting. This was possible as the ‘softness and firmness’ one of my teachers speaks about seeped into my day off the mat. And that translated to being able to make time.

One of the lovely things that happened to me through the year was the opportunity to demonstrate for one of the teachers in the online classes for beginners. These twice-a-week sessions have been such an immersion. Without fail, I log in 20 minutes before to set up and chat with P. She is a generous teacher, loved to bits by all her students. The regulars show up class after class and in the odd moments that I see them do their asanas, I see how there is joy, vigour and eagerness. I’ve loved beginner classes all along and participating in one like this has been a gift.

It was a full year of online classes and through the course of the months, I found myself at ease in asanas I had never attempted before while I lost some asanas to physical conditions. Both were simply observations. This freedom happened as I learned to soften the belly and brain. I got glimpses of the vast spaces inside as well as the darkness that exists in much of my body and mind. I was able to experience the energy that my teachers spoke about. I received glimpses of the touch of breath in pranayama. It remains very much a rudimentary learning of the alphabet. But, it is progress nevertheless and endlessly fascinating.

One of the unexpected gifts of 2021- Niño who came into our lives one November evening.

Over the years, I see how it appears that this system is all about sequence, asanas as solutions to problems, precision etc. but that is missing the forest for the trees. As the pandemic continues, I see how Iyengar yoga is many fruits, many fruitings according to the inherent tendencies of its practitioners and teachers. As for me, I remain a devoted student of the subject but find that perhaps calling it Iyengar yoga is limiting. It is yog, as Guruji says. Staying with his thought and reading about him, his works, listening to his family and students through the year that passed taught me patience. In situations of distress or doubt, it was easier to pause and consider how he may have made his choices. More often than not, the answer sprung from Sutra 1.33, one of my favourites.

Despite the pandemic making life more virtual, mine became less so. The first year of pandemic saw a lot of connection via technology while the second one saw more time spent in the company of trees and a few people. I am grateful to have this space to share and receive even if it has been an erratic presence. It’s been about 7 years since the beginning of this blog and in some sense, it is probably no longer a space that answers some of the questions that I had as a beginner. But, it remains a space to put markers like a reminder that the word for this year is ‘slow’.

Practitioner vs. Sadhaka

It’s been a month since I’ve been attending virtual classes and they’ve settled into a nice rhythm, providing an anchor to the week. It has the rigour of a physical class but with a little extra caution since each of us students have to be responsible for our own safety in the confines of our homes. I’m glad this avenue exists to continue learning but I also miss many things about a regular class.

I miss the hard wooden props like the Vipareeta Dandasana bench, the trestle as well as the ceiling ropes, grills and the like. I miss the callouses on my palms from the ropes. I miss the call and response of the invocation, there is an energy to the whole class reciting together which is absent in this format. I miss the silence and air in the large hall during practice, the noise of props being moved during therapy class and most of all the hands on assistance that would often teach in leaps. Perhaps, not very yoga worthy to miss things but it is how I feel. RIMYI is home.

Studying like this has been a more introspective and slower way of practice for me. I find myself working with breaking down asana actions into regions, currently it is the upper back. There is hesitation in some of the inversions and back bends, the easy familiarity with them has become distant with a summer practice of less energetic poses. This morning, it was like playing lego with lots of books and a few bricks to find that upper back action and some back bends. It’s so easy to slide but the body also remembers and comes back with a little nudging. Despite the rustiness, I see a natural progression.

Last week one of the classes had some prep work for pranayama and I found heaviness and resistance. I asked my teacher about it later and he recommended using the support of a prop. So, I played with bricks, bolsters, a combination of bolsters and blankets and found that bricks work best for me now, maybe something else will later. It was the same earlier too, the hard wooden props reassure me more than the softness of bolsters. Maybe it is a preference for the edge of a little discomfort?

Lately, I’ve been re-reading the Core of the Yoga Sutras, it’s a beautifully nuanced rendering of the Yoga Sutras in an interlinked manner. Yesterday, I was reading the chapter on Sadhana Krama – Method of Practice.

The second sentence, ‘Sadhaka must be a skilled and accomplished practitioner of sadhana’, made me pause and think about the name of this blog, anonymous sadhaka and how it is not entirely appropriate if I had to follow the definition! Practitioner would be more like it.

Guruji speaks about four aspects of Sadhanaśodhana, śosana, śobhana, śamana and ties it in with Sadhana Kriya of Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishwara Pranidhana culminating in bhakti.

Sadhana demands an investigating and examining mind if the action is to purify (śodhana). Dessication and absorption (śosana) are needed to remove the body’s defects and for an auspicious presentation (śobhana). When the effortful efforts transform into an effortlessness state then one experiences the calm and soothing state of śamana.

These are juxtaposed with the kosas and nature of sadhana as bahiranga, antaranga and antaratman. Therein I find the beauty of these texts, layers upon layers, at once a progression and a composite. Finally, he ties up the chapter by enumerating the pillars of sadhana – Sraddha, Virya, Smrti, Samadhi Prajna in Sutra 1.20 – Practice must be pursued with trust, confidence, vigour, keen memory and power of absorption to break this spiritual complacency.

Last week, I was invited to be part of an event that was celebrating the achievements of that organization. It got me thinking about how different it is from asana practice. there are no annual celebrations or milestone markers. Sometimes there is thrill of getting into a pose that was unattainable earlier but it is momentary and there is no specific outcome save the process. Again, I found myself asking myself, why do I practice? It is for the sake of practice, I never know what the mat brings me, both while on it and after.

Having limited work has meant more time for asana practice and plenty of outdoors, especially long ambles in the woods. The world outside continues to burn in more ways than one- environmental disasters, natural calamities and human cruelty alongside a pandemic that continues to run its course. Life is uncertain, always has been just that this time around it has been a collective experiencing of the same. At some point, this page will turn and it may be for the better or worse, it is hard to say considering how much we’ve battered ourselves as a species as well as the planet we call home. All that we have is the number of breaths we will take here and maybe that can be in the spirit of an offering.

In gratitude for the blessings of yoga

Untitled design
Asana practice is a bit like playing with lego. Build, unbuild, rebuild. Repeat.

Back to Basics

It’s been physically and mentally exhausting shuttling cities lately but I didn’t want to miss attending a regular class. Therapy class was about naked emotions and with no where to hide. Yesterday, I drove over 3 hours to make it to my first beginner’s class in nearly two years.

The drive was painful and full of unbidden memories, ghosts of past terrors and present wounds. Every time I felt a wave rising, I had to remind myself to let the body relax and have the wave wash over and exhaust itself. Sometimes, it meant releasing it in animal sounds of pain that reared up from deep inside.

I made it to the institute with about 40 minutes to spare so I sat and watched a class wind up. I also encountered yoga friends from the earlier classes and it was hard. During the last few months, I stayed away from familiar acquaintances as I didn’t want to talk about myself. And I found myself feeling the tightness again when they asked innocent questions after my health and home.

I didn’t trust myself to be ok in a regular class and the invocation time was one of angst. So I sat with my eyes open pushing back tears that threatened to flow. The class though was a beautiful reminder about the basics and I found myself reminded of “The body is the first prop.” After being heavily propped for the last couple of years, I was shaky in the independent poses. It’s ironic that the slightly more difficult asanas are easier now. On the way back from class, I could cry in the privacy of the car. Maybe I’m finally learning to feel and express sadness the way people normally do.

So much has shifted in the last year, right from my home to my inner world. It’s still in a flux but I feel lucky for the destruction of my life as I knew it. That allowed me to walk on a yoga road very different from what I had known till then. Less about books and philosophy and soaked in treating the kleshas.

Notes from about 3 years ago. Still as true.

I’m hesitant to acknowledge a home practice lest it go away. It is there in the way it feels like experiment and study, a little rusty like it felt five years ago. But, there.
I had a small aha moment today with my breath. I wanted to work with the dorsal region and so practised twists, sirsasana and variations, some backbends. Finally, in setuband sarvangasana and savasana, I felt the breath centered in cycles around my sternum in a controlled region. It was a different experience altogether, like pranayama. I remember how difficult pranayama classes would be, the breath just would not stay confined to where the teacher would tell us. Today, it happened.

Yoga journey could be compared to a gangly adolescent’s growth. It has spurts, uneven and disproportionate extensions and one fine day, you realize that the full adult size is reached. I suppose this is what it means to be a practitioner, forever an adolescent.

Sitting down

Lately, I have been exploring the seated asanas, particularly dandasana, upavishtakonasana and baddakonasana. The legs seem to have a mind of their own and are reluctant to go where I want them to. Stubborn and dull. So, I patiently stay until their resistance wears away and they become amenable to settling down. It is a different way of practising compared to the earlier exerted way of pushing to move. Most of the time, I need to push to learn the correct movements and alignment for better endurance. However, these slower explorations are no less intense.

These poses are helping to ease my knees and get a little freedom from tight runner groins. The standing asanas also seem to have benefited from the seated ones. Today, I got out for a run after a long time and noticed better knee alignment while in motion. There was symmetry and barely any sensation of overuse of one leg. 

Last week of the month classes are a prep to pranayama and it is usually difficult for me to get my mind to slow down. But yesterday’s class was a different experience. It was so silent inside, quietness so quiet that it felt as though my breath had stopped! I still don’t think I am ready to try it on my own yet. A good asana practice itself is not possible everyday!

Japa sadhana is troublesome as my mind wanders and I want to quit. But I sit and complete it even as I see my powerlessness over the thoughts that rise. Somedays, it is easier to observe and gather attention but most days it is like watching a child run riot and being helpless to do anything. Frustrating. But, eventually the child tires and has to settle down. Perhaps the mind will also tire itself out and be still. 

I question myself about my reasons to sit down and all I can come up with is to become a capable sadhaka. A fit instrument. The earlier days were fresh and it seemed light and as though I was on track. Now it is a hard and barren landscape, a struggle to keep going. It’s been just a paltry few months but my mind wants instant gratification. Come to think of it, this tendency defeats the very purpose of the whole exercise. One good thing is that I have sustained a daily practice despite the resistance. Perhaps if I do it often enough, it will become refined by itself.

Sometimes it seems like there is a constant endeavour and dissatisfaction but I have never been as content and at ease in my life. Often, it feels like a dream, a rich private world that draws me and the one outside where I still have to play my roles.

Hari Om