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

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

De-conditioning

Five years ago, I was a new student at RIMYI, excited and nervous. Prior to applying, I scoured the internet to understand more about what I could expect as a beginner and found that there was very little for a rookie. Most of the material was written by those who had been practicing for a long time, many of them senior teachers in the system. It was also interesting to note that there was more material by international practitioners than by Indian ones. Five years since then, I’ve been a regular student at the Institute and still feel the same excitement at the start of a new academic year. It seems a bit surreal to have a virtual session considering how much physical adjustments have been an essential part of learning and therapy. And uncannily, the thought for June from last year’s calendar is ‘Yoga is deconditioning’.

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RIMYI shut down early March and the break from a teacher led learning forced me to pay more attention to exploring rather than just practicing. Most days, there would be some kind of a general direction be it standing poses, or forward extensions etc. But lately, it became exploration of a class of bodily regions like the groins in say Supta Padangushtasana 2 and Ardha Chandrasana. The actions themselves have begun to be less forceful and aggressive and softer in the nature of a curious watching. In the bargain, I find that I move further in the pose with less effort. I spend less time overall but it feels more intense.

Up until last year, I felt like Eklavya (here’s an earlier post) on the fringes of class, never reaching out or being part of the community. I stayed deep inside my limited self, terribly tongue-tied and hesitant to ask for help or answers. That began to change slowly although I still tended to lurk in the shadows at the back. But my teachers drew me out and I started to learn to loosen up.

In the last five years, my body went through different phases of fitness, injury, rehabilitation and health. Along the way, I discovered pride, arrogance, impatience, fragility, willingness, resilience and a host of other traits, some useful, others not so desirable. I’m not a hardcore practitioner and there are days I skip because of a day going unruly or then plain procrastination but not for too long. However, there was a time I was incapable of getting on the mat for days. It’s no longer guilt over not practicing but a need to set right the mind that brings me back to work with the body. Yoga is forgiving that way. No matter how long one is away, there is always a renewal and muscle memory is quick to activate.

The sutras enumerate the 9 obstacles and 4 distractions and also provide a choice of techniques to address them. But I was too far gone at one point to help myself through their use provided in the subsequent sutras (1.34-1.39). All I did was surrender completely to my teachers and go where they sent me. In retrospect, it was a single deep rooted surrender to this age old science and art. I believed if anything could help me navigate the difficult spaces of my life, it would be yoga. It’s been more than half a year since then and I’m still just about discovering bits and pieces of what happened during those terribly painful sessions. I’ve been revisiting some of my notes from then and it seems like another life. I remember my rough days simply to remind myself to be gentle with others, especially in these times. And so it circles back to my favourite sutra, 1.33.

This morning’s class was such a different one, from the home of my teacher to the homes of all of us students. We worked with basic asanas but in Iyengar yoga fashion, explored them differently, some of them not really asanas as much as a variation of possible movements till a tipping point, literally and figuratively. The Zoom avatar of class is an internal one, devoid of any performative aspect that shows up in a hall full of people. It feels almost like an individual class with just the teacher’s video on screen. In a way, it is a guided self-practice than a class, more inward looking with fewer distractions.

In the confines of my room or out in the woods, I can shut the madly careening world out. There’s much distress out there. As I type, there’s a cyclone making its way to the west coast of this country, one of the worst afflicted as far as the pandemic is concerned. We’ve already had Cyclon Amphan wreak its wrath on the east coast and locusts in the northwest besides the terrible plight of migrant workers trudging home in the most punishing of seasons. Halfway around the world, ignorance and deep rooted biases destroy lives alongside a virus. And through all this Mother Nature continues to adjust and reset indifferent to the fears and anxieties of her human children.

Personally, some of my life plans have had to be indefinitely postponed but there is a calm acceptance of a changed reality. It has also helped me re-calibrate my life to retain what really matters. I remain incredibly grateful for the privilege of safe shelter, food on the table, a stable mind and the ability to provide for my family. Guruji’s words ‘Live happily, Die majestically’ are even more relevant than ever with the awareness of the fragility and uncertainty of life. And as my teacher said today we can’t defeat the virus, we can try to dodge it as best as we can. Simple food, good rest and good exercise is pretty much all that we need, the rest has been non-essential as a 10 week lockdown has shown us.

The song of the mountain

Tadasana is the first asana in the repertoire of yogasanas. Deceptively simple looking and often glossed over as an opening pose, the mountain pose does not have the glamour of backbends or the elegance of forward extensions. Yet, it has been a fascinating study for me since I began my journey in yoga. Every time, I spend a significant amount of time in the asana at a stretch, it reveals more of its wakefulness.

A couple of nights ago, I listened to a lovely concert, Songs of the Himalayas. It was inspired by the composer’s trek in the mountains and the stories he collected along the way, mostly of the simplicity and wisdom of its people. The musicians were brilliant and it was altogether a lovely immersive meditation of sorts. This morning my practice revolved around tadasana and I was reminded of the motif of the mountains. A mountain stands, it breathes, it is alive. Perhaps, not in the sense that we are taught to look at it as rock and soil but as part of a cosmos that we still don’t fully comprehend.

Our bodies are said to be a microcosm of the macrocosm and it makes sense from a yogic lens. The elemental nature of the body and mind mimics what is outside of us too. Mountains are usually elder structures, old ascensions into the heavens and have their unique shapes, structures and peculiarities. When stable, they remain standing without any change for years. Their shifts happen with a shift in energies of the earth. Perhaps the imagery of a volcano can represent the flow of energy of its structre, Of course, it is uncontrolled in an eruption but controlled in asana.

Geetaji talks about the adho mukhi and urdhva mukhi nature of energy flows, the downward and upward flow of energy. While I’ve experienced that in different asanas to different degrees, today I found myself studying it from the point of view of a mountain to understand how it works within the confines of my mind and body. While the essence of a mountain remains elevation, there is also the corresponding descent of its outer slopes. If the inner lift happens against gravity, the outer relaxation happens with it.

Tadasana instructions are usually staccato like in their delivery.

Feet together. Suck the knee caps up. Tuck the stomach in, buttocks in. Roll the shoulders behind and down, hand extending downwards. Become tall.

As one progresses in practice, there are nuances added and these can go really deep. The only thing that becomes apparent as I spend more time in this pose is that vast tracts of body and mind remain out of reach. On the outside the asanas are better looking but internally, there are deserts of silence. It’s a slow progression, or perhaps a progressing slowly as physical prowess gives way to a more detached viewing. One of curiosity and experimentation.

One of my teachers used to say if there is only one asana that you can perfect, let it be tadasana and I am beginning to see why. Often, the pose is used as an analogy for the sthirtha or steadiness required in any other asana. Over time, I have seen how arm work brings better leg stability and today was a learning in how the inner arm can bring the quietness of the outer leg. Result was strength and lightness in arms and a grounding so solid of the soles. Tadasana is really a whole body scan.

Home practice has been good but today, I missed my teacher and wished I could hear her clear voice and laughter. I missed helping out in the medical classes, I missed working in the library and I missed the fledgling sense of community I had begun to experience at the institute. While the lock down has been a period of acceptance with a fairly balanced head and heart, the prospect of an extended one has found me yearning for beloved RIMYI. Deeply.

Pictures taken before lock down – the windows in the first image are ones I’ve looked out of many times and the RIMYI library is a favourite place. It’s probably where I’d be headed out to first when we are allowed to move out. 

Coming home

The days are flying and it is all I can manage to make notes and notations before moving on to the next thing on my plate. It’s a full plate and I am grateful for a spectrum of life situations, quite like a thaali, a multi course Indian meal which includes the 6 tastes. Most regions in the country have their versions. Traditionally, these different food items would be served and consumed in a particular order but those practices are mostly lost now. There is always space on the plate for sweet, sour, salty, pungent, astringent and bitter. Life dishes out experiences similarly except that there is no fixed interval or order or volume.

Special days at RIMYI see this lovely statue with a beautiful garland.

In the midst of all these different tastes of life, I had a special one today. The taste of coming home.
It began slowly and without my being very aware of it, the ‘hellos‘ and the ‘how are yous‘ or the odd conversation after class. And then a few weeks ago, thanks to the prodding of a few practitioners, I volunteered to share my experience at the annual day function. Perhaps, it was the brilliant backbends class that day which made me bold to take a step like that. Long story short, I read my piece today, not quite trusting myself to look up and speak.

Later this evening, one of my teachers remarked how important it was for us to tell our stories. Many people go through difficult times alone when they don’t need to. In my head, I’ve always felt that my story wasn’t story enough or my experience sufficient to speak. Add to that dollops of doubt and the ‘impostor syndrome’ and there was a ready recipe to stay on the fringes forever. That’s where I’ve lived all my life, looking from outside in and struggling alone. Learning to ask for help was the big turning point. It still isn’t natural but there is a shift alright.

It is still baby steps in participating and at the moment, feels very much like magic that I am happy and able to appreciate and relish the gifts of music, the outdoors and human connections. I see my teachers and their lives are inspiring in their dynamism. While their days are poured into yoga, they are also present in their personal lives and have fun doing stuff. As students, we forget that essential part of being human- the ability to have fun and laugh. I didn’t know laughter tasted this good.

In gratitude

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.

Out in the open

Friday evenings, I remain at the back of the hall not sure what I should do. Yesterday, one of my teachers called me out on this lurking in the shadows. I am so raw, so much a beginner that I wonder what can I do to be of use in a therapy class. But, apparently there is something I can do. Yesterday, I was put with a student who had a similar kind sequence to mine when I was broken. And I got to see how my face might have changed as I saw her skin and eyes lighten. “Open the corners of your eyes” used to be a common refrain then and I found myself mouthing the same.

In one Urdhva Dhanurasana, her body just changed shape and all it took was the teacher’s instruction on one or two actions. That movement was much more than the one with hands helping her become tall. The teacher mentioned that that’s why Guruji would call that asana the art of living. Skilfulness in teaching, that’s what I love about the teachers here. Knowing when to support and when to let the student find out. As also, knowing how much a student can take. In retrospect, I was put through the wringer. I think of it as yoga magic but another teacher pointed out that it was blood and tears. That’s true too. But, one still needs to be touched by grace – of teachers and a Power greater than oneself. I’m grateful to have received that in abundance.

These days, I don’t end up looking back and my heart and head feel like a clear stream with no leftovers from yesterday. It feels as though all the sludge is gone and all that is left is a clean river bed for water to gurgle over. I laugh more and am less self conscious, like a child. The tightness in my neck and throat is no longer there and I can lie in savasana. I am awake and alive. This morning, I went on a tree walk and the guide mentioned how it took some 30-40 years before the barks acquire some character. Human beings are like that too.

A White Shirish tree with its distinctive bark that I had the pleasure of meeting this morning.

Her Life – His Work

December is always a special month in the Iyengar community with Guruji and Geetaji’s birth anniversaries and now her death anniversary as well. It is a time of memories, sweet, aching, happy and above all loving.

Yesterday, many students and teachers shared their memories of Geetaji, her father’s daughter and a gem amongst women. Listening to some of the sharings, I teared up as the compassion they talked about was also one I experienced first hand from the brilliant teachers she mentored. I found myself going back to this day last year and remembering the utter devastation I felt on hearing of her passing away. In a strange way, I felt motherless and was grief stricken. This despite never knowing her personally.

One striking characteristic of everyone in the Iyengar family is childlike innocence and playfulness. It seems in direct contrast to their fierceness but I’ve only seen compassion shining through when they have been tough. The medical classes are perhaps the best place to see Iyengar yoga in all its generosity of spirit. Thanks to the times we live in, we can hear them and see them again and again.

One of the teachers at the institute shared her memories about Geetaji through a heart choked with emotion and in her words I found echoes of my struggle with practice. The same doubts and sense of ‘never being able to do some stuff’. My journey too has been one of fits and starts and seeming stagnation but I still show up with all my shortcomings simply because I believe that this is the way for me. Most of the senior practitioners who seem unflappable and so strong have also had their share of terrible pain and tragedy. I suppose in a way, Iyengar yoga is for those who have suffered greatly and found no solace elsewhere. It is not an easy path to journey and there are no half measures. As Geetaji was know to say, you have to be willing to die.

On Guruji’s birth anniversary, Abhi took one of his sayings and went on to explore what it meant. “When I practise, I am a philosopher. When I teach, I am a scientist. When I demonstrate, I am an artist.” Seemingly different but when you settle into the ideas expressed, it makes perfect sense. They are not separate but facets of the same practice. I like to think of it as parallel to Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram as well as jnana, karma and bhakti margas respectively. Art as understood in the Indian tradition was always about exalting the divine. A classical musician or dancer spends years of sweat and toil learning the basics and techniques under a guru. The maturing of the artiste makes it possible to then move beyond the science and philosophy of the form to create art. Even Brahma needed to create, it is a natural instinct for self expression and in Guruji’s case, it was an expression of the Self.

My head and heart are full with the words and thoughts left by all those who spoke about their experiences. The beautifully choreographed demonstration by some of the practitioners was a delight to watch and if Geetaji were alive, she would have been happy to see the devotion to Guruji that continues to grow. After his passing, she never lost an opportunity to remind us to be true to his legacy and beyond death, her life continues to inspire thousands to be true to the art, science and philosophy of Ashtanga yog. As Pavithra shared, one cannot really separate Geetaji and Guruji. To speak of one is to remember the other too.

There was much that was spoken and it will take a while to let some of those words seep in, especially Prashantji’s almost insistent words about clues left by Guruji on the brain and heart but I still have to attain readiness to even begin to understand it.

In gratitude for Guruji and Geetaji’s life

A continuum of service

Every Friday that I enter the hall, I wonder whether I have any business being there. I sit at the back not knowing what I should do when my name gets called. The next thing I know it is time to pack up. If the 100 odd minutes would fly earlier when I was at the receiving end of yoga therapy, now they are over in a blink.

It’s a different experience to help people with props, I’ve always been a recipient of that help and don’t know if I should do anything lest I do harm. But my teacher asks me to hold or pull or push and I do so a little self consciously. The actions though are those I have watched countless times just that seeing and doing are two different things.

The knee group needed assistance with rods and belts which that was both familiar and strange. My hands know with the shape of my knees and fixing the props for other knees allowed me an opportunity to get a sense of different textures of skin and structure. It’s almost as if skin reflects emotions.

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I worked with a few different people and the overwhelming sense I got was of emptiness. Most people, including myself, don’t inhabit their bodies. There is silence, a thick dark silence. By the end of a session or practice, there is a feeling of presence, as though one has been bathed in energy and the lights have been turned on. That’s a feeling I’ve experienced and I saw that in the face and bodies of others while being next to them. Therapy is more than just adjusting the body, it requires empathy and humour which the teachers bring.

At the end of that class, some of the people I helped came up to me and thanked me. While I was a little embarrassed, it was also a familiar emotion. I would feel the same way about those who helped me. We are a continuum in service.

Latitudes of the body

Earlier this week, my teacher gave a striking analogy for the movement of the spine in twisting poses. She said turn the latitudes of the body and that cue was a brilliant aid to move the trunk through it’s latitudinal plane. The phrase has stayed in my mind and notebook since then, often popping up to remind me to dig deeper into the same action in other poses.

Latitudes are imaginary lines, decreasing in size from the equator to the pole. Wide circular lines that shrink until the top of the earth. It retains its baseline regardless of the tilt of the earth as it wanders around the sun. Overlaying this imagery over twisting asanas makes for an interesting experience of inhabiting the movement into and out of the pose. Needless to say, the next day, I found new areas of my body groaning into awakening.

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Guruji in paripurna matsyendrasana. It’s an extremely uplifting image for me as I see the juxtaposition of his gaze and his body.

I’ve had different mental reactions to twists but the majority has been a certain sharpness of reflexes, clarity of thought and a lightness of body. It’s almost as though the squeeze expels all that is extraneous, leaving space for fresh thought and action. Many years ago, when clothes were still washed by hand, one would wring a piece of clothing to squeeze out all the excess water. It was a sort of twist and squeeze before release, leaving the garment ready to be left to dry in the light of the sun and gentle breeze. It used opposing forces to achieve the result, much like the parivritta action.

Most of the time, one looks at the effort in the pose, perfection in the pose, technique and technicalities but really, it is about the effect of the pose on one’s heart and mind long after the asana has been exited.