Perceiving the teacher

I’ve been attending classes with multiple teachers thanks to the online format, each of them bringing a distinctive flavour. If I had to break it down into what makes them dynamically different while staying true to this system of yogasana, it might be broadly categorized into Goal, Approach and Language. It appears that these three are also closely linked to their own studentship and relationship with their primary teachers. Some of the teachers clearly were mentored by Guruji, others by Geetaji. It seems as though their own personalities were taught the way they would best receive and that is the underlying current of this river of Iyengar yoga, the alignment between teacher and student.

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The hall at RIMYI seems like a very distant destination now.

While I miss a physical class for the opportunity to see other bodies and observe how the teachers adjust or watch, online classes have provided a peek into their own learning without the distraction of a hall full of people. There is more of the teacher to absorb. In this format, the field of practice has moved from a hall to one’s own self and observation depends as much on the spoken word as on the visual representation. The mind is a marvelous thing, constantly scanning, absorbing, arranging, rearranging, assimilating, discarding bits of information from various sources and integrating them. I find that a book about plants or watching birds teaches me yoga as much as time on the mat does, both in the physical expression of asana as well as in the way to go about the business of living.

The online medium shows the teacher or demonstrator and often just listening to the audio is sufficient. I access the lessons on my phone so the screen is really tiny magnifying the importance of the economy and efficiency of speech. One of the teachers epitomizes austerity, a refinement mindset and a sense of craftsmanship. Another teacher is about the hard work of body to develop sensitivity and I see Geetaji’s presence in the keenness of that delivery. Yet another is more relatable to us students with our mridu mind and encourages an endurance mindset, devotion to Guruji being foremost while a fourth makes sure we remain in touch with all the asanas. The differences in both the goals and approaches are at a peripheral level, the basic one still remains to enable us to experience the asana in its totality. Each of the teachers wield language in distinct ways and that is a separate post in itself. Some of the analogies are invoke such powerful visual imagery that they guide the asana effortlessly. And of course the regional Marathi that is sprinkled in adds a delicious flavour by recalling uniquely Indian experiences. How would yoga be taught in the absence of language?

In the context of my own learning, I find there are times I veer towards one and at others towards the others. The approach of a female teacher and a male teacher is distinct, while another layer is of personality and interests. But despite apparent colourings of gender and personality there flows a single river of Iyengar yoga. The difficulties of their practice and its resolution comes out in the way they instruct. A nuanced, finer touch, almost austere versus an earthy one that is empathetic towards human frailty. One, a seeking to go beyond prayatna shaithilyatha in order to begin yoga and the other to develop a joy for endeavour. Of course, this is purely a personal perspective as a student and I could be way off the mark. But, it is interesting nonetheless as it helps me look at how I study, not just asana but also other things that I am interested in. It helps me observe better, open my mind a little more and be adventurous.

September’s meditation is “Yoga is integration” and this has been a good way to begin the month, to see how learning is an integration of not just the teacher’s teaching but also the teacher’s learning that a student is privileged to receive.

“Yoga is compassion”

August’s thought was one that I was conscious about every single day. This one was a tough one to stay with, it threw up many false notions about myself. The degree of compassion often only extends to where my ideas and beliefs are not at odds.

Compassion means being able to pause, reflect and respond.

Compassion means listening completely, including silences.

Compassion means a deep sense of oneness, it cannot exist in separateness.

Compassion means being of service, not being attached.

Compassion is easier with people outside of your immediate family where the opportunity for friction is less.

 

Just a placeholder post while I let this thought linger.

6 cups of coffee in baddakonasana

There used to be a time I was proud of my ability to sit in a baddakonasana, padmasana etc.. I had pride too, in the ability to go to sleep in supta virasana. Those were the days I was running long distance and these asanas were part of my everyday. Naturally, the body adapted and the flexibility improved. But, I was also attached to what I thought was good looking poses. 🙂

Then (2016)

Now, a few years and more than a few knocks later, I am relearning these asanas, cautiously. The sweet spot lies somewhere between fear and aggression. Doing, observing, pushing through or retreating- all of these while questioning myself if the actions spring from attachment or detachment, from pride or a spirit of enquiry.

And Now

It took me a while to come back to the mat with the regularity I have now. It also took me a long time to come back to textual studies in a more regular manner. The pandemic has proved to be an opportunity as well in the tracts of time it has created with reduced travel. Personally while I have lost work, I have gained much with an asana practice and study. It has seen me remain mostly energetic and positive.

This morning during practice, I listened to one of Geetaji’s videos from an Italian convention on YouTube. (Here’s the link). As a coffee fiend, it made me chuckle when she suggested having 6 cups of coffee in baddakonasana even as I attempted the action she was suggesting. She has a wicked sense of humour but it is often restrained, so to see her enjoying her joke was rather delightful.

While reflecting about practice and my state of mind now, I find myself comparing it against last year. The desolation I experienced then is similar to what I see in many people now. My mind was in shambles then and trying to work with the mind didn’t help things too much. I would slide back into what seemed like an endless quicksand. Asanas worked on my mind through my body. Something changed at a very intrinsic level, maybe some chemistry in the brain, I do not know. All I know that the rewiring changed completely. Practising through the pandemic has nourished my mind and kept it reasonably clear. It also made it possible for me to get myself out of the way and serve others.

Asanas make me reflect, not just on body parts or actions but also on similarities of approach and withdrawal to situations in my life. If I had to summarize asana or situations in life, it might be to say be present, do the best you can and the pose will arrange itself. Life is unpredictable, there could be injury, loss, debilitation or a pandemic but through the practice of asana, there is a courage to meet its unpredictability. There comes an ability to receive all of it without resistance. Striving on the mat involves resistance but is never resisting. There are aha moments when after working with resistance, a region suddenly bursts open into consciousness. It is a received experience.

A few days ago, while exchanging emails with a dear friend, I was reminded of a ready reckoner of the texts that I was working on some years back. Some part of it was complete but there is much that is pending, so its back to old practices that I lost when I lost my way. I do feel a regular asana practice brings back good habits quite organically, almost effortlessly. It slowly increases your ability to do much more than what you think you can do.

These times are a time out in many ways. Much of the world has retreated into itself and so there is also less distraction. Might not be a bad idea to sit on the mat in baddakonasana with 6 cups of coffee. Maybe 6 is too much, I’ll take one. 🙂

Aparigraha in a pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Synesthesia of learning?

I find that in self-study of any sort, not just asana, the process of learning is largely invisible and in small packets spread over a period of time and across different spaces of our lives. They remain scattered until the body and mind are prepared to synthesize all of it into an organic whole.

The month of May threw up small pieces that spoke of space and harmony. One of the first was an article in the Yoga Rahasya on Symmetry and Space (Vol. 24, No.4 , 2017). Another was the view from my balcony floor while lying down and looking at the sky. Yet another was the toiling that happened on my mat and the reading that would come after. A large chunk also lay in the outdoors with the trees, stones, birds, flowers and so on and an interesting bit was in a colouring sheet my daughter made me fill up.

Last evening, towards the end of my practice, I came to Karnapidasana and it was a whole different experience. I tend to be wary of the pose because of pressure on the neck. Last night though, the pose was effortless and I experienced a shutting down of the ears and an opening of my eyes. Not like the opening of the eyes in backbends but almost as though there was an inner set of eyes that opened. A seeing without seeing and time didn’t exist. Maybe that’s what made it feel like I could stay in the pose forever. Despite the compressed nature of the asana, it didn’t feel that way at all.

After practice, I looked the asana up in books and on the internet to see if there was anything other than the technique or benefits of the asana. Geetaji’s Gem For Women mentions that it makes one turn inward but beyond that I wasn’t able to find anything. But, the pose caught my attention for its association with the ear, the word ‘pida’ and the theme of space which was running through the days. And this morning, I worked with a slightly different set of asanas before attempting Karnapidasana again. This time there was resistance. I was trying to replicate yesterday’s lesson without being open to what today wanted to teach.

The sensation yesterday reminded me of an experience a few years ago when I saw sound, not the form of it. Synesthesia, a fleeting experience in savasana. I wonder what is the connection between the ears and eyes? Is there one or am I imagining it? Is it stubbornness to want to connect the dots that appear through moments in life and make sense? I don’t know. But the theme of space and all the words that tie in with space, be it sound or silence have been cropping everywhere. In asana, we are taught to create space in the body. The skies rest in space, the stars and the moon too. It has been contemplative sorts of days lately, one of being brutally honest with myself, breaking patterns, facing fears. This is different compared to earlier when the process worked from body to mind a few months ago.

Sharing a few lines from the same Yoga Rahasya mentioned earlier

With asanas come penetration

With penetration comes sensitivity

With sensitivity comes intelligence

With intelligence comes wisdom

With wisdom comes harmony

With harmony comes stillness.

Satyam, Tapas, Svadhyaya

I woke up in a rebellious state of mind, not wanting to practise. And then decided to continue reading the Taittiriya Upanishad. It was the best thing I could have done. What an uplifting read! It never fails to inspire, these ancient texts. Such conciseness, poetry and power, almost as though just the shapes and sounds of their syllables can change something inside. Although I’ve been reading just little portions, one section or theme at a time, today, I found myself reading more than usual.

One of the interesting things amongst many others in today’s reading was from Section 9 in the first chapter. A blue print for living as a continuum of study, practice and passing on. I found parallels in the study, practice and passing on of my understanding. In an earlier section, there is a fervent desire for material prosperity and the desire for students. I felt that the implied sense was that as long as material needs were met, the dissemination of knowledge to deserving students could occur. In the guru-shishya parampara, there were no fees, only a guru dakshina on the completion of one’s education. That has a lot of resonance in my beliefs too.

Since the passage was very beautiful and a reminder, I think I will write it down here too.

The practice of what is right and proper (ritam), as fixed by the scriptural texts, is to be done along with reading the texts oneself and propagating the truths of the same.

‘Truth’ (satyam), meaning practising in life what is understood to be right and proper, is to be pursued along with regular studies and preaching.

Penance (tapah), study (svadhyaya) and preaching (pravachane);

Control of the senses (dama), study and preaching;

tranquility (shama), study and preaching;

the ‘maintenance of fire (agneya)’, study and preaching;

offering of oblations in fire sacrifice (agnihotram), study and preaching of the Vedas;

serving the guest (athithayaha), study and preaching;

the performance of duties towards man (maanusham), study and preaching;

duties towards children (prajaha), study and preaching of the vedas;

procreation (prajanah), study and preaching;

propagation of the race (prajahitih), study and preaching;

all these things are to be practised sincerely.

Satyavaca, son of Rathitara, holds that truth (satyam) alone is to be strictly practised. Taponitys, son of Purusista declares that penance (tapas) alone is to be practised. Naka, son od Mudgaa, holds the view that the study and preaching of the Vedas (svadhyaya) alone is to be practised; that verily, is penance; aye that is penance.

The translations are a bit archaic but the Sanskrit is more inclusive and can accommodate the realities of the times that we live in. Study and preaching are svadhyaya and pravachane and can be also interpreted as self study and expression or interpretation. Seen in the context of the origin of the name of the Upanishad, Taittiriya, it is apt as the dissemination of experienced knowledge. What a beautiful guidebook for educationists! The image in the post is the story of how this Upanishad got its name.

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Image from the commentary on the Taittiriya Upanishad by Swami Chinmayananda

Some of the 12 steps could be interpreted differently in the changed contexts of human behaviour and lives today. Like procreation and propagation of the race. The choice to not have children etc. also can be seen in the light of the sheer need for a reduction in the burden on the planet. In the evolution of humankind, the reasons for procreation turned to be economical rather than evolutionary and hence this changed approach today is perhaps essential for balance. The 12 indications are good cues for contemplation in how they may be interpreted in our lives now.

This Upanishad was the very first one I read and attempted to study a few years back and it made a huge impression on me then. Subsequently, I have dipped into it off and on but this current revisiting is like reading it all over again with eyes wide open in wonder.

And also the next section which is such a song of joy and freedom!

‘I am the stimulator in the tree of universe. My fame (glory) is high as the peak of the mountains. High and pure am I like the essence in the sun; I am the power and the wealth, effulgent with intuition. Intelligent, imperishable and undecaying am I’- this is the sacred recitation of Trishanku after he realized the Truth.

And part of the commentary- Trishanku rightly declares that to know ourselves, to complete our rediscovery, to realize our divine nature, to live as God in ourselves, is the only harbour wherein the frail mind shall no more be exposed to the storms of contentions and the surging waves of desires for wealth or temptations for power.

Much of my writing is really an endeavour to ‘rediscover’ not ‘discover’, what is usually referred to as cleaning the mirror. This just may end up going up on my wall as a constant reminder on how to live a full life of service.

My heart feels lighter for having read this today and the encouragement to live exalted is just what this tired spirit needed.

Bridge over troubled times

2019 is long over but the calendar from last year still hangs where I see it up close. My eyes stray to it multiple times in the course of the day and as the month progresses, my viewing also gets adjusted. It inspires enquiry and experimentation. Often, more questions are raised than discovering of answers. I suppose that is the process of svadhyaya.

Somehow, seeing the asana everyday makes it seep into its practice too. I find myself cueing what I observe. It’s a different learning in the absence of a class. No oral instructions, just watching a still image and finding out for oneself. On one of my other blogs, someone mentioned the word tattolna and it probably explains this seeking. An exploration, a seeking , a searching for oneself.

Before Vipareeta Dandasana became my favourite pose, Setu Bandha Sarvangasana held that place. Of course, not very yogic in being attached to an asana but then I’m not a yogi :). It would be the one I chose when given an option between any of the cooling inversions. Almost always, propped. Besides the bolster, brick, bench versions, there was one with the bench and a large square cushion which was a completely different experience. I learned to fill my breath in that one with P. She would ask me to reach her palm with my sternum as I inhaled and eventually, my sunken despairing heart began to open.

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana is often called Bridge pose but Light on Yoga mentions it as construction of bridge pose. It implies a movement. Classically entered from Sarvangasana, it makes sense. It also goes by Uttana Mayurasana or stretched peacock. In either name, there is an implied movement of stretching. One of the insistent images is that of the bridge to Lanka in the Ramayana and Hanuman’s leap across the sea. Intense and stretched.

Today, I took a picture of myself in the pose to share with a friend who was trying it as well. Later, I placed it alongside Guruji’s image from the calendar and saw an entire universe of a difference. It’s a good way to see and correct when there is no teacher to walk one through the finer details.

The world outside spins in lockdown which will continue for the next two weeks. We’ve been in this state for long enough to have it become the new normal. Post lockdown, whenever that happens, I still see myself living this kind of a life for the foreseeable future. Except for the financial implications of work, this minimal way of life has been one of a rich inner landscape. I avoid the news and check on updates every couple of days. Instead, there is much watching the skies, doing whatever little I can at work and volunteering. Meals are simple and readings are varied books. There is also a lavishing of time on my craft and I try to put something as an offering as often as I can. While the current state of the planet is one of fear and isolation, there is acceptance and a continuation of doing whatever one can. And that helps keep my world on an even keel. Eventually, this too will be in the past and the bridge would be complete.

Last month’s thought was ‘Yoga is equanimity’ and it has been an endeavour to keep that idea through the month. May says, ‘Yoga is harmony’ to the accompaniment of Setu Bandha Sarvangasana so that is the meditation through this month. Last year Pavithra mentioned that she had done this as an exercise and I thought it was a beautiful way of keeping yoga alive through the day. So an attempt even if the calendar be one year old.

Flying shoulder stands and some thoughts

Today’s penultimate pose was a sarvangasana, the lightest, tallest one I have ever inhabited. Our teacher said, fly with your trapezius and we flew. All the ‘shoulder surgery‘ we did in class today made for a sarvangasana that was as wide as it was tall, the trunk felt like an open book. The arms and shoulder promise to make their presence known later but that is sweet pain.

I feel a little out of my depth in the Intermediate class, many of the asanas are a challenge mostly because of the knee. The holds are longer in this class and I still have to attain some strength and endurance. I fall over sometimes and come up sooner. The old tendency to find fault is there but there is a little more patience. It is also fascinating to see how much the body can actually move. In one of the parsva salabhasana variations, my teacher came and pulled my arm so easily and had it cross my back. I struggled with moving it and she made it so long. We have far more in us than we think we have, like in running. This asana learning is an energizing one, continuous and fresh everyday. I attend 2 classes- beginners and intermediate. The experience is so different, one assures that there is some proficiency and the other reminds you that you’re a long ways off. It’s a continuum of being student.

Life off the mat has a different quality now. More clarity, more humour and more acceptance. The inevitable conclusion is joy. Sometimes I wonder if it is a phase, this almost euphoric sense of well-being despite the challenges of living. But, it doesn’t seem that way. Not for now atleast. My eyes are wide open and so is my heart. Setbacks are temporary and experienced in the present and then sent their way.

Yoga and running, both were never quite about the body or fitness for me. Even now, with the struggle of the body, it is really about facing myself, fears, flaws, strengths, potential and being able to see them and know that they have their place. It is about being able to fall flat on my face and being able to laugh about it. I used to take myself too seriously, still do but it’s easier to be around people now. I’ve made new friends and feel like part of the community at the institute.

Evening therapy class was interesting. Raya broke down assisting handstands and rope work. It was interesting to see how each person processed the lessons. Although Iyengar yoga appears to be regimented and rigid in sequencing, I’ve had firsthand experience of not following any of the conventional rules when my teachers would work on me. It is like classical Indian music, once there is a certain maturity, the rules can be bent to suit a conscious purpose. The lovely performances are often improvised but this is mastery level and beyond.

As for me, I found myself wondering what right do I have looking at this when I can’t yet do a handstand by myself. I’m probably the only one in all the helpers/ observers/ teachers who cannot do what I guess are basic requirements for someone to be assisting. Anyways, I listen and observe, knowing that I might not retain much but believe that all that wisdom will come back when I am ready. In the meanwhile, I help where required and that takes me out of my doubt and questioning for that period.

Time

My days have been a whirlwind and sleep is in short supply. Work calls for punishing travel schedules these days and I hustle to ensure that yoga days are sacrosanct. Somehow in all this manic activity, I also find it possible to be present in whatever I am doing. This morning, my daughter and I spent a few minutes catching up before school. I hadn’t seen her all day yesterday and the little morning conversation was leisurely and loving. I could both experience and witness it as such not in retrospect but as it unfolded. I was reminded of the sutra that explores the transcendence of time and gunas (4:33). No claim to any such ability😁

I’m learning to carve out time as opportunity presents itself rather than being fixated on a rigid schedule. It’s a change, the ability to adjust, readjust willingly and without resistance. This has allowed me to fit in a few walks in the woods as well as time to read and write. Most of all, it has removed the weight of expectations, leaving my inner house open to welcome every experience as it arises. Life is lighter and there is more laughter. Often, we students are a serious lot and our teacher lightens our faces and bodies with humorous observations. We forget that laughter is a natural state and perhaps if we could laugh like children, spontaneously, much of the weight in our lives would be lightened.A tiny burst of sunshine on the ground, yellow magic

Class was brilliant as always and I learn as my teacher teaches us and the other teachers. It’s beautiful to watch her do both simultaneously without missing anything. At one point a few years ago, I thought I might want to teach but increasingly I find probably not. I’m content to just be there, help out, learn and explore. I still don’t understand how and why I was asked to come to help. I can’t do so many asanas the others can, simplest of which is a sirsasana in the middle. But, I show up and soak all that is around. And I believe that someday that sirsasana will also happen. It has happened for many others before me. So, I attempt in class with the help of others. That much I can do.

The dance of life

A couple of years ago, if someone had to ask me to choose between being steeped in yoga and my normal life, I wouldn’t be able to choose the former. Yet, it was always a dream to fulfill once my responsibilities were over.

And then the last year unraveled in ways I hadn’t imagined. Life threw quite a few curveballs in quick succession and forced a complete destruction of all that I held normal. Every single thing. All the yoga classes over the last few months worked with erasing the vestiges of that limited self, forcing me to confront myself. It’s amazing how much we build around the idea of who we are instead of who we actually are. Deeply flawed and potentially divine.

Destruction happens. It’s always happening in nature when leaves turn yellow and fall, creatures die, lava incinerates and tsunamis wash away many lives. Yet, nature creates, not recreates. Even humans. We say rebuild but it’s actually creating from scratch because the old does not exist any longer. That is consumed by time. The Natraj statue in the library was a beautiful representation of that thought.

The angst has passed, some anxiety remains and I find saying No helps, deciding one way or the other helps. Unless I close the door and walk out into the sunshine, I will never be in the light. It is not the way of the world, to drop back and trust that the ground will receive you. But, it is the way of the sutras, of continuous, dedicated abhyasa and vairagyam.

It reminds me of something I learned early – be careful what you wish for, it just may come true. It certainly appears to be the case now and I’m humbled, grateful and a bit unbelieving of my good fortune to study yoga. Sometimes great things are born of terrible pain.