Why do you practise yoga?

I found myself in the library reading transcripts of one of Geetaji’s talks from nearly two decades ago. As always, many gems in there and I wrote down some of them in my book. One of the thoughts that stayed was a question. Why do you practise yoga? If I had to answer for myself, I would say mental clarity, emotional intelligence and perhaps more longingly a chance to experience a spell of being boundless.

It is amazing how much progress has happened with the knee in the last three weeks. All it took was letting the teachers know what I felt. For a long time, I felt that the root of my knee condition lay in the groins and sure enough, I’ve seen a huge turnaround since that day.

It’s a different experience to practise passively, mostly just relaxation and with a lot of assistance. Surrender at multiple levels, to the body’s intelligence, to a teacher’s touch and of the mind’s desire to be doing. Yoga looks very different from a prone position. I suppose when you’re on the ground, you can’t go any lower. Perhaps the last year was about grinding down until I lay face down and stripped the layers of fear. Learning to own up to my life and let that song be heard. It is difficult when you are used to singing alone.

The face of my yoga practice has changed from feeling a lack of availability to acknowledging what is present. The sensitivity of the body is much greater than what it was during days of active asana but I doubted it. How could it be possible for someone so young in yoga to feel that way? I still remain skeptical but there is a tiny voice that tells me that perhaps it is what it is. The ability to experience need not necessarily be related to the length of practice.

Update:

Today’s sutra class was on 1:18 and explored that same boundlessness. It’s unnerving and exhilarating at the same time to find that the experience ‘i’ sought is one that is spoken of in these studies. And as the sutra speaks, transcending even the balance of potential sanskaras, the restraining ones. I can’t help but feel immense gratitude for the opportunity to listen and soak in Prashantji’s words.

Sometimes I wonder if I should write here, and if it isn’t self inflating but then I remember why I started. Perhaps another who begins their journey can see my stumbles and know that it is a journey that is worth it. An offering of gratitude. As Prashantji says, the sadhana is through Shastrasangha, satsangha etc.

This lovely card is a physical expression of an invisible sangha

“Yoga is the word which stands for the whole process and the whole philosophy” – Geeta Iyengar

It’s been a few weeks since Geetaji passed away and I miss her presence in the hall. My eyes roam to the end where she used to sit but that space is taken up by props and the people they support. The energy in there is urgent now, a fire that is constantly stoked to keep the teachings alive. All the teachers pour themselves into the discipline and I can’t help but see how dynamic and organic the process of teaching and learning is. And as I leave, I see the huge picture of Guruji looking into that hall and think all is well.

Hari Om

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Subsumed in Smriti

A couple of weeks ago, we explored ‘smriti‘ as part of the sutra study at RIMYI. Just a day before that I was talking with someone about memory and since then ‘smriti‘ has been a continuous whisper.

Prashantji mentioned how the other vrittis were ‘subsumed by smriti‘ and that phrase has taken root. Smriti again. Memory is a loose translation for smriti as the latter indicates knowledge recollected as well as the recollection of the process of knowing . The technical delving into the vrittis is a fascinating exercise and one that is deeply rich at the Institute. Between Prashantji and Srineet, there is a lovely balance of structure and flow. I remember thinking how the teachings of the family are like a river, continuously flowing. No matter at what point one enters it, one is bathed. The generosity of their sharing reminds me of something I read once about how sharing even the little we know is important since that could possibly help someone else to get more out of that small piece of knowledge.

Back to smriti, the concept was deeply immediate to my current situation. How does one use smriti in its aklishta form? How do you examine all the vrittis that come remain encapsuled by it? How much can you trust the mind and the senses? Regret for the past and worry about the future also lie in its realm. The current embodiment is a result of smritis of previous lifetimes. How does one work through the weight of all that past?

The sutra leads on to the twin rivers of Abhyasa and Vairagya, one flowing outward and the other to the source. ‘Chitta Nadi’. It is the solution Lord Krishna gives Arjuna as well. Oftentimes when I open the Bhagwad Gita, the page that appears is the shloka (6:35) that provides the same solution. The treatment of the solution in the Sutras and the Gita is the same but its expression is beautiful in both. Terseness in one and personal in the other to suit the capacity of the sadhaka. Krishna taps into the innate warriorhood of the Pandava prince by addressing him as ‘mighty armed’ and brings an empathetic understanding of the difficulty in restraining the restless mind before laying out the prescription.

Abhyasa uses smriti. In asana practice or study of the texts, the mind employs smriti to go further leading to more smriti. And what is the limit of the mind’s capacity? What is the limit of the capacity of the cosmos of which we are not even a drop?

Our lives are part of that uninterrupted recording and we are mostly without any real control since our thoughts and feelings based in the past drive our present. Instinct must come from that recollection of millenia. I imagine (vritti again😊) Vairagya would be the ropes of smriti falling off by itself. No burden of past impressions or future anxieties.

This student is deeply grateful for the experience of listening to the learnings of teachers who have thought deeply on the subject of yog. These ruminations are but a tiny interpretation of what was understood of a few things that they shared. Perhaps in time, something else will be revealed from all that was heard until now.

Hari Om

Savasana and a Shraddhanjali

Practice began with savasana today after my morning reading. It led to thinking about seeking versus searching. Seeking implies a quest for an unknown answer while searching inherently assumes that the object is known and one cannot find it. What is it we seek? Life.

On that note, I lay down in the pose of the corpse. Somehow, there seemed to be an urgency to quieten the mind. The body slowly surrendered to the ground and the mind opened into the universe. It exists, in savasana, the entire universe exists in all its infinity. I had a glimpse of its endless movement and stillness, a perpetual cycle of creation and destruction being played on an unchanging screen. The irony of waking up to life in savasana was not lost.

It was a different kind of practice, unusual and prodded by a growing sense that perhaps what is needed is an extended period of restorative poses. And savasana has been calling, softly but insistently. I’ve been poring over the pages in the books on the asana. Life really is nothing but a preparation for death…

Update: I came back from the Shraddhanjali for Geetaji this evening feeling that all is as it should be. The grief is receding and a renewed vigour has been ignited.

Prashantji spoke about Geetaji’s lifetime being one single situation, Abhijata spoke about her one continuous thread of yoga, Iyengar yoga and Guruji. Her commitment, sacrifice, implicit faith in Guruji’s words, her love, devotion and reverence for her father were some of the facets that all those who spoke about shared. For me, I think of her as being ‘childlike’. It’s a quality I associate with Guruji too, a nakedness without shame. Perhaps that is the honesty that Abhijata highlighted.

We are lucky to have volumes of her work to fall back on. Thanks to the age in which we live, we can listen to her voice and see her.

As for her, I like to imagine that she climbed those steps in her dream to be with her beloved Guruji.

“Art of Yoga is difficult, not impossible” – B.K.S. Iyengar

Guruji’s punya thithi is always marked with a program by the Institute, this year was no different. The first couple of years were still a little shaky as his old students struggled to find their anchor. These days, the sense of his presence is unshakeable when they speak of him. Except Prashantji, I suppose. He’s always been the stoic one, exhorting us to learn what Guruji was always trying to teach. Not Iyengar yoga, but yog.

A backbencher’s perspective

There will never be another B.K.S. Iyengar or a Swami Vivekananda or any of the other great teachers. Simply because, they were the full realization of themselves. And that’s really the call for us too, to realize ourselves.

One of the things that stood out for me was a reminiscing by Raya about Guruji’s response to his youthful frustration at the impossibility of being able to replicate his asana. The reply came later as an autographed line in the Art of Yoga, “The art of yoga is difficult but not impossible.” With love, B.K.S. Iyengar

In fact Raya actually suggested that we could write the exact words and it would hold true for us too. And he is right. It echoes the thought in the Gita about the promise of emancipation for all. Of the entire bit, ‘with love’ was the defining phrase for me. A child-like generosity unencumbered by ego. Not just Guruji but Geetaji and Prashantji also have that same simplicity of unfettered love.

It feels good to get back to a routine of practice and class. I thought of an inability for a regular practice as a loss of asana proficiency but it really doesn’t matter. Yoga is right where I am, how I am.

In my studies, I have come to the last chapter in the Geeta for this reading and I found myself going through the introduction of all the previous chapters as suggested in the footnotes. I ended up underlining many portions in those sections. Suffice to say, this exercise will need to be repeated again. In the meanwhile, it is time for another round of study of the yog sutras.

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

Of bricks and hills

By far, sitting in simple sukhasana for the invocation is the most difficult part of practice. The settling down on to the mat, preparing the body and mind to stay alert yet relaxed. Witness and participate in equal measure.
Maybe it's just habit but the invocation is an integral part of my home practice. The cues come quite naturally from all the instructions in class and I find myself running a mental checklist. And, there is something else happening now, a sense of interconnectedness that is not just intellectual. It's a physical play of the upper body and the lower body, the arms and legs, the fingers and knees and so on. I'm beginning to experience the nuances of expansion and extension for myself. It's discovery. This is common knowledge for those who have gone before me but these tiny ah ha moments are precious, gifts of abhyasa.

I'd originally thought of playing around with some balancing poses this morning but somehow veered towards opening the chest kind of poses. It was an instinctive carry forward from getting ready for japa practice much earlier. As I settled to start, there was a sense of many cogs in the body coming together to open the chest. Last Saturday, our teacher used the analogy of the gears in a watch working in sync to keep time. That thought has been simmering since then. Those kind of analogies are what catch my attention more than the 'knees straight', 'elbows locked' ones that are so much a part of our learning as raw students. Gross actions until we can start to actually get them into a semblance of activation. The practice felt intense like how a class feels despite it being a short one. Quality over quantity. The brick, wall and ropes were my teachers today as I experimented with them in ways I haven't learned or been taught. I ended up in the region of the abdomen where the breath found its pause and the mind found its expression.

Tapas and Tejas were the first words of those thoughts. Fire and heat right in the belly. More play with the five elements. And it took me to Prashantji's words about the manipuraka chakra. At such times, I so fervently wish to be able to spend more time at the Institute, soaking everything in and studying and practising. Perhaps even getting an opportunity to attend his classes. Maybe someday…

As my days in yoga pass, I am reminded time and again of how little I know or understand. It's nearly three years since I commenced learning and all those things that my teachers would say back then make a little sense today.

Teaching the body to obey is one thing but the greater learning has been bringing a sense of presence in it. Inhabiting the space and time of this embodiment. These are all just fragments of experiences and will take a while to become a new base level. Right now, it's the joy of having crested a hill. The view is fresh and I'm drinking it in with all my heart. It will become part of me in time and the journey of a thousand hills will continue.

Hari Om

Namo Namah Shri Guru Padukabhyam

Where do I start? Talks at RIMYI are always rich in subject and today’s exploration was ‘Guru’.  

The thoughts expressed were familiar and new, the nuances different and it probably cannot be summarised in a post. Simply, because there is much to ruminate on. Prashantji left us with an interesting question to ask ourselves, ‘Who am I?’. The first thought that came to mind was the book, I am That by Nisarga Dutt Maharaj. It’s a theme common in Swami Chinmayananda’s works as well. But then, all teachings are one…

As usual, the Institute was chockablock with students, old and new, local and foreign. All of us, regardless of experience or lack of it, students. On such occasions, we usually chant the invocation together and it is a very powerful sensation. There is a palpable energy in that hall which somehow feels like a living entity. In the few minutes before the program started, I thought about what Guruji meant to me. 

I never had the opportunity to study from him in person, yet like Eklavya, I found my Guru in him. ‘Guru in absentia’ as Firooza put it. Unlike Eklavya though, I am an undeserving pupil. Guruji is like an ocean, both the anonymous drop and the mighty ocean. As Prashantji pointed out, his brilliance was the cumulative effect of his many Gurus over many lifetimes and their Gurus over their lifetimes. The eternal Guru-Shishya parampara that transcends time and space. Each generation stands on the shoulders of the previous one and builds from that base. Prashantji shared an anecdote of how as a child, he couldn’t see what was going on during a Ganesh festival procession. His father hoisted him onto his shoulders and then a young Prashant could see beyond what his father could! He reminded us about the traditional practice of paying homage to our ancestors, the pitrs. There’s an interesting story about Bhageerath and the Ganga that touches on this theme. But, that’s another post altogether. This day, Guru Pournima, is in honour of that Guru principle. 

Besides the pancha tattvas, there is a sixth- the Guru tattva as Firooza said. The inner Guru, the one that manifests itself when the student is ready. The analogy of a mirror brought out the concept beautifully. Darshan being nothing but Atma Darshanam, the illuminating of the Self within. That mirror needs constant cleaning and polishing to remain clean and free from distortion to see clearly. Until then, it is abhyasa and vairagyam- the twin tools or techniques to prepare ourselves for that vision. Even Arjuna needed special vision to see his beloved Krishna’s true essence.

Guruji’s life and conduct was his teaching and that’s why he is a true Guru despite multitudes never having been in his physical presence. He is a living force for me through his students and writings. Thanks to technology, I can hear him too and it is that booming voice that jumps out from the pages whenever I read his books.

The lotus feet of the Guru 🙏

Two hours of experience and knowledge of those blessed with his attention will need many more hours of introspection and contemplation before they start revealing their truths as and when I become worthy.

As the concluding lines of the Svetasvatara Upanishad goes, “He who has the same supreme devotion for the Guru as for God, indeed to the great person the spoken meanings of the Upanishads become revealed.” I pray that I remain a devoted student all my life and find the strength to come back no matter how many times I fall. 

Signing off with a verse from the Bhaja Govindam (31)

गुरुचरणाम्बुजनिर्भरभक्त:

संसारादचिराद्भव मुक्त:।

सेन्द्रियमानसनियमादेवं

द्रक्ष्यसि निजह्रदयस्थं देवं।।३१।।
Hari Om

Image courtesy: Rupali – a fellow student at RIMYI