Week wrapped backwards

Backbends week and it was some heavy lifting. Not difficult, just intense. When I think of the crazy backbends I was put into a few years ago, these seem mild and I think perhaps I could push a little. But, it is a tricky category. It requires determination and courage but it would also be foolhardy to rush into it. And in the interim, I feel my changed body as well. Outwardly, it looks the same or perhaps a little leaner but inside, there is heaviness. A woman’s body has its weather and then there’s the climatic conditions too. And like Shakira croons, ‘hips don’t lie’. They feel their age.

Vipareeta Dandasana Morning and Evening expressions

The week’s practice was a lot of baddakonasana and some backbends. Just nudging the body to work with resistance, to bring restraint in action. Tinkering, coaxing until it becomes amenable to change. It takes time and patience in good measure but the body does yield, the mind does yield.
Someone sent me a clip of an industrialist sharing his experience with Guruji and yoga and there was such a nugget of wisdom there. Basically, fix the functioning and the structure will eventually fall into place. Sharing it here should you like a watch. I guess one could draw parallels with karma yoga here. Do without expectation of the fruits of your labour.

Then there is Prashantji’s class which is in a different realm. Dizzying in its nuanced complexities and one can only wonder at his vast knowledge. His education series talks are very illuminating. They keep me company on my commute to and fro the institute. In one of his earlier classes he had mentioned developing one’s own schema in the study of this subject. And I find that anchoring in one text is a good way to explore.

Assisting is becoming a little more natural. I realised I would instinctively tense when I was called to do something because I wasn’t sure I would know how and thought I should have known But, once I became aware of it, the experience has been one of natural curiosity and openness. And in the process, learning has been more organic. Therapy sessions are about agility and precision but that comes with slowness. Breaking down the steps into a series of logical progressions that are accessible.

The institute will see its first in-person event on Patanjali Jayanti and I’m looking forward to it. Prior to the pandemic, the hall would be spilling over with people and there would be arrangements for people to watch on a screen in the lobby area. Considering a hybrid way of life, it would be interesting to see how it pans out. Through the year, everyone is in bloomers and tees so the dressed up selves are quite a lovely change.

Diwali is just around the bend and there will be a welcome break from the routine. It is a pretty time of the year but this year the monsoon has refused to depart and may play spoilsport.

Bounty of life

An unexpected rest day that was full of things I love. Saturdays are no class days barring some housekeeping for a couple of online ones early in the morning. The rest of it is quite unstructured in general. But today was a little different. I had two commitments, one was a recce meeting and the other a mentoring one. The recce was outdoors for a tree walk I’d be leading next weekend and the mentoring one was an online monthly one with an enthusiastic and earnest group of 3 young women who run an NGO. The morning meet was supposed to be for an hour but while working out my route, I was engrossed in the wonderful world outside.

A gorgeous white siris

In the afternoon, I headed to the trail for a walk but had to abort midway as it was simply too slippery. But since I was out, it was easy to follow my feet and I wandered into a green compound. A long amble and while walking, bits and pieces of Prashantji’s classes kept coming up to the surface. He talks about education in yoga and listening to him addressing students and teachers on the same theme is like a 360⁰ view and immersion at the same time.
He emphasizes exploration in our study. It got me thinking about how we learn as children, as adults.

My beloved trail

As an amateur naturalist, I observe and am curious. There is no baggage of science when I discover something unknown to me. That comes later. And it struck me that it is a child’s process that I employ. It is fun and there are no expectations. There is a constant rearranging of information that is gathered over the years in the face of something new and my head tries to make accomodate it. It is the same in asana too. Learning and relearning.

Ylang ylang vine

Despite the gravity of the subject, Yoga brings sense of child-like wonder and joy. Practice can be playful as well. I’ve never done asanas outdoors but seeing a big metal barrel in the field this evening, I was reminded of Guruji and draped myself over it. The experience was so different. My hands on the wet mud, the vast world upside down and a sense of ease in that bending into the unknown. Quietly exhilarating. Although if it weren’t for the complete isolation of that space, I probably wouldn’t have attempted it. This week was backbends and we did some heavy duty work in class so a supported urdhva Dhanurasana felt good.

Roll Over Urdhva Dhanurasana

At day’s end, I’m glad to have partaken of the marvelous bounty that is life.

Learning to learn

​Every time I sit down to write here, I realize the days have slipped away yet again. The last two weeks included some sudden work assignments as well as unexpected family commitments and classes. There was a COVID scare thrown in for good measure too. But all’s well that ends well. Back to classes and even managed to get on top of pending work. Sometimes I feel that I accomplish a lot more when there are multiple balls up in the air.

Fridays in September are special with a limited series of classes by Prashantji. It is pure joy being in that session. He’s got a delightful sense of humour and some of his anecdotes show a very different side of a man considered serious. I’ve been sifting through my memories of my early days at the institute and remembered the wish to study with him. I can’t quite believe how it is a reality today. At the start of this academic year, I had no clue that I would be doing a different set of classes than the ones I opted for. I don’t have the necessary asana proficiency in order to do all that is required in some of those classes. As for Pranayama, that’s barely there either and I feel like I’ve not got all my studying in. But something he said in one of the classes stuck with me. In a nutshell, when the subject is complex, one has to formalize a schema for learning. I’ve yet to articulate it for myself.

That’s been my struggle currently. The last couple of months has been an evolving of different kinds of learning as well as levels of learning. So, I’d struggle with what to practice or focus on. Today, it sort of made sense while I was on the mat. I need to work mostly on the gross asana work at home while absorbing the nuances in class. Allow those learnings to also grow organically, the way asanas grew. I’ve been rereading some of Prashantji’s books and now there is the beginning of a glimpse of the subjective understanding of some of the concepts he speaks about.

This evening was kind of fun actually. The youngling also practised with me (a first). She made funny faces and did a little jiggle in the poses and we burst out laughing. Once she was done, I continued with inversions. Grunt work mostly. Just doing. Perhaps, it might be interesting to explore and document inversions in home practice this month. No goal as such, just explore, do, see, observe. Do without any expectation. Recently, I was reading a transcript of one of Geetaji’s lectures on a Gita Jayanti. She talks about how Ramakrishna Paramhansa summarizes the teaching of the Gita as tagi= tyag or sacrifice. It is really the crux of that beautiful text. Maybe the time is ripe for a re-reading.  

“When I practise, I am a philosopher. When I teach, I am a scientist. When I demonstrate, I am an artist.”, one of Guruji’s oft repeated quotes is brilliant at many levels. If I had to look at it in the way it is arranged, it begins with practice followed by teaching and culminating in art. Philosophy was the original enquiry before it split into the sciences and arts. In another approach, it is the schemata required for different facets of a discipline. And yet, despite three different role assumptions, each is contained in the others. It’s incomparably elegant as a framework for any pursuit.

Pot Pourri

Yesterday evening, Prashantji spoke about the difference between the humbleness of a giver and a receiver in the context of breath and mind. And that stayed. As I begin to find my way around his classes, I am keenly aware that I am not quite eligible but I persevere. There is enough faith in the subject and the process that I know things will become apparent when the conditions are right. In the meanwhile, all I am required to do is show up sincerely. The question he posed made me feel as though his class really begins when it ends. The precepts he talks about, while to do with the breath and mind, are really more a nudging into enquiry, practice off the mat.

Coming back to the question about the humbleness of giver’s mind and the receiver’s mind, I can’t help but marvel at the subtlety and nuance of the bhava in each of the roles. One can draw a parallel with the ‘knower’, ‘known’ and ‘knowing’ here which is quite a recurrent theme in philosophical studies. First of all, it is interesting to see the terms used as giver and receiver versus giver and taker. The former, for me, implies value which cannot be quantified. It could be considered akin to two sides of a coin, a completion of circuit, a oneness. The giver is not really separate from the receiver. Seen in this manner, yoga of/for the breath and the mind begin to make sense.

Dead Man’s Fingers on a decaying tree stump is just one small example of the giving and receiving one sees in nature.

Giver and taker are more in the nature of a transactional exchange. I suppose the initial inhale and come up, exhale and go down could be considered in this fashion. Vaishyavarna or the class of traders. Guruji has referenced the castes in context of stages of a student/ practitioner. In fact, today’s class was an interesting one in terms of these exchanges while we cycled through a few krounchasanas towards the end of the class. It was something to observe even as the class started from the very first samasthithi. Tadasana or Samasthithi has always been a fascination for me. It is a whole body asana and coincidentally, also one of the options in Sunday evening’s class. These symmetrical poses are wonderful in their ability to hold a mirror, to show the sama in samasana.

I think about posting here but somehow the day slips away from me and I barely manage to make notes about my thoughts/ reflections from class. And before I know it, many days, weeks pass. I did think about doing a regular wrap to consolidate the week’s learnings/ reflections but that seems a herculean task now, considering the way the subject is opened up by different teachers. It is like rain, wonderful life-sustaining rain. And perhaps, I am not ready for all that profusion as I find myself trying to navigate the vastness that is yog. But I do believe that it will seep into my being and sprout some saplings when the time is right.

Unfolding

I was in Prashantji’s online class today and it was a revelation how he managed to make pawanamuktasana such a powerful asana. I don’t think I will ever see it simply as a release pose or a preparatory one for Supta Padangushtasana.

Post class as I sat to gather my thoughts and reflect on what he spoke about, I thought back about one of his earlier classes which revolved around saucha. Today, there was an exploration on satya as well as the prithvi tattva. His classes are an invitation to explore. They are not to be treated as an asana class in the traditional sense as he opens up multiple interlinked points through the 2 hours. And the thing is, each of them are worth an entire practice hour or two over a long period of time.

RIMYI has been a unfolding for me. Sometimes students argue about wanting to go to the ‘next’ level and I feel they miss the point completely. The more time one spends in those initial years, the more ease there is in the later ones. A certain ripening. I see how my body, mind and breath cooperate better now and often surprise me with an effortless entry into never before attempted poses. Today, I experienced a glimpse of what might have been referred to as breath condition, mind condition and body condition in rope sirsasana. It is a comfortable enough asana to be in as there is no physical effort required. And yet there are shifts in the mind and breath. The fluctuations or vrittis have a visceral expression.

Not really related but when he smiles, he reminds me of Geetaji.

Holiday Practice – Bridge over Trikonasana

Yesterday was mostly Adho Mukha Svanasana and a few standing poses. I wanted to check how the wrist was tolerating stress and it is not yet quite there. Finally, ended up in Setuband Sarvangasana, formation or construction of bridge pose as described in LOY. It is commonly referred to as Bridge pose but there is merit in considering the bandha part of the asana’s name.

While the actions were all in the limbs, the phala, if I may say so, appeared to be in the final pose. It was a shanmukhi mudra sort of experience. And that is where the ‘construction’ part of the name struck a chord. Yoga is union, yuj and we need something to connect until such time where there is no division. And so the need for vehicles/ media for body and breath, breath and mind, body and mind to make acquaintance at least. By the end of practice/ class, there is a certain cohesion of all three which is sometimes keenly experienced in a savasana.

Construction also makes a lot of sense when considering how much precision and alignment is necessary in the building of a bridge. Purpose, structure, safety, durability, load bearing etc. are the same factors in asana or a bridge. And there comes the necessity of precision and alignment, hallmarks of this system of yogasana. Initially, I just saw it as a structural or aesthetic endeavour but as the breath began to be a more active participant in the asana process, I started to experience the energy flow in the pose. There is a certain circuitry in its formation and staying in a pose for a period of time makes it apparent. But, that took me quite a while until I learned to ‘keep the brain quiet’ as my teachers would say.

Precision and alignment in asana inherently have measurement built in, a geometry that is visible. There are many images that show the direction, lines and triangles formed by various asanas. Just for fun, I measured the image of my pose to see how it stacked up. And it is useful to see it externally as the internal measurement is not tuned enough. There is a broad sense of it but the inner access is still not available. As I type, I remember a trikonasana from a class a few years ago. It was the final pose for the day and had the feel of savasana. I felt I could have stayed in it forever.

Trikonasana is a wonderful asana to stay in. As one of the first poses we learn, there is a familiarity and comfort in its shape. At the same time, it is a world in itself. Prashantji’s ‘ Alpha and Omega of Trikonasana’ is a good example of the universe that the asana is. It is a slim volume but packs a powerful punch. It is quite esoteric at first read but over trikonasanas, there is a little more understanding. Still light years off from all that he talks about but that is also the beauty. There is no deadline in the practice of yoga.

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.

Looking back

Six years ago, when I started this blog, it was simply with the purpose of documenting a beginner’s experience of Iyengar yoga. Six years hence, looking back, I see that it is more a navigation through the lens of yoga viewed through multiple perspectives of time and space. It hasn’t been about asana techniques or benefits but more an exploration of the different pathways that appear at different points in time.

It has been a while since I posted here. In the last three months, I spent a fair bit of time on the road before settling into the lockdown necessitated by a devastating second wave of the pandemic. This time around, the losses were closer home with friends, extended family and acquaintances falling ill and, in some cases, passing away. Besides the tumult outside, there were matters closer home that needed attention. Through all this, there remained a steadiness of mind and heart, with the ability to stay with uncomfortable emotions. Time on the mat and classes have been a constant through these last few months.

The 2019 calendar still hangs in my room and the thought of the month is something that still continues to percolate through my days. The month’s image is Guruji in setuband sarvangasana and the thought is ‘Yoga is harmony’. How can we experience harmony when there is so much suffering in the world outside? In the context of a pandemic, how do we live in harmony with a virus? Where can one find harmony in a situation of attacks and counter attacks? How can we remain in harmony when confronted with the devastation wreaked by forces of nature?

And yet, when I slip into the woods or step on my mat, there exists nothing but harmony. I watch the change of seasons, the rise and fall of new growth, the damage wreaked by storms, the weight of dead and decaying matter and there is balance. On the mat too there is the harmony of learning and unlearning, ability and inability, laziness and endeavour, resistance and acceptance. I find myself experiencing a beginner’s floundering once again as I wait for the actions and experiences that the teachers want us to experience. It comes in flashes just like the early days of asana. With time, some classes remind me of earlier classes and something from the early years makes sense. I recognize ease in ‘striking the pose’ as Prashantji says. There is a seamless coming together of different parts of the body to assume the asana, stay in it and dissolve it at its end.

At day’s end, it does feel like there has been harmony. The various elements of living both within and without have found their space without striking any incongruence. Prashantji’s classes this month have been way above my current ability. His use of language is quirky and can seem excessive at times but the more time I spend with his words, it seems like he is opening different doors to the same view. The pace is really rapid in terms of the subtleties he explains and I simply surrender to not knowing. It will come eventually when the body, mind and breath are ‘cultured’ enough. That word has stayed with me since the morning’s reading from his book, Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali. Asanas are for spiritual culturing. What does it mean to be cultured? That is definitely subject matter for long exploration.

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.

We are because he was

It’s Guru Pournima today, the day we honour our gurus. In a pre-pandemic world, there would have been a 90-120 minutes programme that would include a talk or two as well as the release of the quarterly magazine and other books. The large hall would fill up quickly with both local and international students and one of the teachers would urge us to shift further in and towards the front to accommodate everyone. These occasions would see old students from out of town as well, a time for communal gratitude. That degree of bodily proximity though is a scary thought in today’s scenario. This year, the hall will remain empty while a talk by Prashant Iyengar will be beamed out via the internet.

I’m not familiar with Hindu rituals and traditions and hence have no understanding of what is done and the little that I have gathered is from seeing, listening and reading about it. I do find meaning in symbolism though, it is useful as an aid to staying with a thought, cooking it and letting it release its essence. There is a story in the Bhagwata Purana where King Yadu is told about the 24 gurus: earth, air, sky, water, fire, moon, sun, pigeon, python, sea, moth, honeybee, elephant and honey thief, deer, fish, the prostitute Pingala, the kurara bird, the child, young girl, arrow maker, serpent, spider and wasp. In classic Purana style, each of these is used to convey a moral and an exhortation for the seeker. Traditionally, one was supposed to memorize everything before the guru would begin to explain. In a sense, memorization would be preparing the field. I’ve found that as a method or technique, repetition can be a good teacher. It starts to reveal nuances much before one actually commences study. Perhaps it is the energy of sound that seeps in as a kind of intuitive sensing.

Guruji touched millions of lives, directly and indirectly through his life, his books and his teachers. I never had the privilege of studying from him but the teachers who teach me did and I receive his wisdom through their devotion to him. He lived a householder’s life while remaining a detached yogi, in itself unusual. He experienced the struggles of living in the world of familial responsibilities and ill health, discrimination and poverty. He knew human frailties first hand and through it continued with his sadhana and blazed a path for those coming after him. He lived through all the stages of life without shunning anything.

Guruji’s props make the gifts of yoga accessible to all

Personally, I feel Guru is a grace bestowed, one has to be deserving. I struggle with the concept of bhakti. There was a time when it happened but I lost it somewhere during a most difficult time and that overflowing hasn’t come back. There is a slow return to the practices that had built up over time and I hope that eventually I will be graced with that same sense of surety. Yesterday, the page opened to the chapter 9 in the Gita and my first instinct was to change it but decided to stay with the thought instead. I like to think of these random instances as being a way of life to nudge us towards what I most need to learn.

If you are unable to fix your mind upon Me, then by the ‘YOGA of constant practice,’ seek to reach Me, O Dhananjaya.

(BG – 12.9)

It has echoes in the Yoga Sutra, 1.14 and the use of Dhananjaya to address Arjuna is also significant in the implied fruits of such a constant practice. Like the divine charioteer was to Arjuna, Guruji is to his students, past, present and future.

We are because he was.