The Art of Yoga

The empty hall is like a stage and the practitioners take their positions and props through that space to different rhythms. Yoga as an art is as evocative as classical Indian dance in its grace, poise and strength. It’s something I have come to appreciate as a practitioner and spectator, the art in this science. It reminds me of the a sentence in the foreword by Yehudi Menuhin, one of my favourite passages.

“Whoever has had the privilege of receiving Mr. Iyengar’s attention, or of witnessing the precision, refinement and beauty of his art, is introduced to that vision of perfection and innocence which is man as first created – unarmed, unashamed, son of God, lord of creation – in the Garden of Eden.”

I’ve spent the better part of two years looking at Light on Yoga images on the walls especially the contrast between the grainy black and white pictures and later coloured images. In his later years, Guruji looks still like undisturbed water as against the dynamism of his younger days. The other day, I was in the empty practice hall and thought of the one breath of life that connects all life, past, present and future. How many inhalations and exhalations had this space seen as they emerged and returned to source?

The space I gravitate towards remains the area near the trestle at the prop end, away from the hustle of a full hall. It’s quiet. There is comfort in the solid wood, cold floor and piles of props, all meant to serve bodies and minds that seek to learn, recover and heal. It’s a spartan space, as bare as it was when first constructed and part of the appeal lies in that asceticism. The window looks out to a large creeper that has wound itself around a tree trunk. Sometimes, when it rains, the sound of the water makes for a soothing backdrop. Life finds a way to adapt, survive and thrive.

One of my friends accuses me of being too square, a purist and I think, how can one not be when you see the richness and depth of an unadulterated pursuit? Every art demands obedience for a long, dedicated period before being ready to break rules, to create work which has enduring appeal. Yoga as practised by Guruji has that timeless quality and it continues in the living legacy of his students and their students.

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Back to Basics

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

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

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

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

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

Notes from about 3 years ago. Still as true.

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

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

Teacher’s Day

In contemporary India, 5th September is marked as Teacher’s Day. A day when schools and colleges set aside regular work to acknowledge and appreciate those who mould minds and further a spirit of enquiry. It was instituted in 1962 on Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birthday. The man was the second president of a free India and a lifelong teacher whose life was grounded in the principles of Advaita Vedanta.

Traditionally, we have always had an auspicious day in honour of the guru, guru pournima, but that’s usually celebrated in the classical disciplines of art, yoga, ayurveda etc. The young people in schools and colleges know of this one better.

A guru is a good fortune that few are privileged to receive. Good and great teachers are thankfully more accessible to us. They are also a rare breed but thankfully at the institute, we have many gifted teachers who share of themselves generously. One thing they all have in common is the spirit of studentship and exploration, never a stasis of knowing it all. Another is the deep satisfaction when a student had that moment of understanding and each teacher has a unique way of expressing that joy. It is a deep personal connect that unites the teacher and taught in a moment of union.

Yesterday was an interesting class, mostly practice alone and it felt like a return to normalcy. That shift is real for this stage of my yoga journey. I feel it in the way breath spreads in my upper torso, like rain. It spreads far more wider and every part feels watered. I look at Guruji’s pictures from the different locations I occupy in the large hall at RIMYI and see how his chest appears in all the photographs. Fearless. Stable. Unshakeable. And I am happy to be in the presence of his living legacy that extends beyond his physical life. One breath that unites across time and space.

The large hall at RIMYI which has been a sanctuary

Perhaps there is progress. My teacher has said we could try a beginner’s class and a therapy one instead of the multiple therapy ones. I don’t know how that will pan out but right now I am grateful for the possibility. It’s almost like I was in exile for two years from a regular class. The last three months felt incredibly long and gut wrenching in the amount of emotional and mental debris it threw up. Is it all out? Hard to say but there is acceptance to stay with it and experience despite the resistance. It’s hard to convey the breakthrough but I’m sure yoga has given this to many before me and will continue to bless more people after me too. It was possible because of my teachers and their teachers in an unbroken line of experential wisdom. The mark of their beauty is their abhyasa and vairagyam. I suspect they’d be uncomfortable with the gratitude but grateful I am, deeply. This is but a small tribute to their generosity and compassion.

My pranams from the heart.

Yoga Magic

Something shifted very viscerally last weekend and as the week progressed, it felt like a more solid change. The last couple of months have been mostly about tears and shakiness but this week was of a change in perspective. Almost all the asanas I have been given over the last few weeks have been either sirsasana, backbends on all kinds of props and free standing and some cooling inversions at the end. In all these asanas, the world view is changed, a different outlook when compared to standing on one’s feet.

Last Saturday, I was devastated. My world crumbled so totally that I was an animal in pain. Deep, guttural pain. The preceding week, I took off for a few days, incapable of going to class or even doing anything. I was trapped then in fear and the situation was an almost impossible one. The only recourse seemed a time out. I came back to find my world upended. Even as I felt my being completely ripped, something clicked inside. I decided that I would bleed my heart that day only and no more, except if it came out in class.

Sunday was spent in cleaning the house inside out until it was night and I was exhausted.

Monday was tentative and before my asanas, I spoke with my teacher for a long while. It was good to speak with someone as I was in silence for a few days. It was mostly supported and gentler backbends. As I drove back from class, a thought came to my mind that was a radical change from my usual thought. A different perspective, if you will.

Tuesday was a tottering day in the company of colleagues who chattered no end while I kept to myself. But, the shift in perspective that I experienced after class on Monday got stronger.

Wednesday was supported deep backbends, poses where it felt like I was ironed back into lettting go. The body started to feel different and it felt as though I could stand.

Yesterday I could practise by myself and felt a tiny sense of studentship after so very long.

Today’s backbends made me feel atleast 6 inches longer, so much so my teacher remarked, “who is this person?”

Some of the poses that I went through this week were similar to those I had seen in pictures, like these of Guruji.


Heavily propped and full of lightness, they were longish stays. Sometimes I wish I could see pictures of my body in those shapes, just to understand how it looks on the outside. Most of my asanas now are touch, I only know them through their feel. Often, the set up behind my back is partly constructed after I have bent backwards and I can only exit by removing something. But, the touch of that asana, I remember.

Besides my teachers, there are numerous other hands that have helped me. One of the constants has been a lovely woman, B, who has seen me right from my broken wings days. Another has been P, conscientious and ready to help. J has been a help and apparently I’m the only one who got his name right. And the list goes on. I remain grateful to all who have poured of themselves to help.

It feels as though the heaviest and darkest clouds of sorrow have passed. Maybe this is what acceptance looks like, a washed sky after the rains. Maybe the season of grief is receding, like the monsoons in my part of the world which will soon withdraw and release the most beautiful autumn sunsets. Mostly I think it is magic. Yoga magic that happened while standing on my head or bending so far back that I could see no more. And finally those corners of the eyes opened.

Images: all courtesy the internet.

Biochemistry of asanas

Today was a stark contrast to class the day before. There was lightness and space in the body and breath. None of the cringing into collapse but instead an openness and curiosity to explore the asanas prescribed. Truly, the body is an incredible instrument, it holds memory both short-term and long-term. I had the leeway to play with a few asanas by myself and it felt possible to go back to being a student.

Last class saw me beaten and at an extremely low point. Somehow telling my teacher that it was fear that was surfacing helped me walk through it. I was in a situation where I relived terrors I wouldn’t let myself feel years ago and was feeling trapped yet again. She made me confront that repeatedly, dropping into the unknown with the promise of holding me or else falling with me and laughing about it. It is strenuous work for the teachers, the weight of not just the bodies of the students but also their inner heaviness.

Something shifted inside in that last class, not just in the heart but in the head too, breaking an old pattern. I could find my voice and be vulnerable in the face of that fear. An old response pattern was broken in the world outside the mat. Perhaps the asanas changed the biochemistry of my psyche, rewiring and rewriting old narratives making it possible to change the course of the future.

Between my two teachers, I am pulled and pushed into spaces I can’t reach. I don’t understand any of it but trust blindly. At times, my senses experience the various movements and even rest. Today, a savasana happened spontaneously after a very long while.

Perhaps someday I can spend my days soaked in yoga at the institute. Maybe I can give back in some little way for all that I have been so freely and unconditionally given.

In gratitude

Detours

Two classes in a row without crying. That’s definitely a step forward. Every class I am stretched and pulled beyond what I think is possible. Sometimes the mind and body feels like one stubborn, hardened rubber band. But, subsequently there is a little more freedom.

Quite a few international students/teachers ask me what treatment I have come for and I don’t know what to say. For someone whose profession involves talking and presenting, I am tongue tied when it comes to expressing what I experience. I still feel like a burden on my teachers as they give so much of their time and energy to ensure I am alright. All I have is implicit trust and faith that they will not let me fall. Standing back arches, swinging sirsasanas and variations that I’ve never done before happen with their bodies as props. By the time, the 90 odd minutes are up, I am sore but content. It feels as though each vertebra has been pulled and stretched and put back together. It’s hard work as usual but I follow the instructions as best as I can. I still cannot hear the song of my body but last class I found myself humming a tune as I put the props back.

From the various spots in the room, I can see Guruji’s pictures and can’t help but notice the lines his body occupies. Seen straight up, upside down or sideways, the angles are unmistakable and make for beautiful visual poetry. The pictures have a calming effect on me but I’m still not sure about the invocation yet.

While returning from class, I took a few detours and had some beautiful views of lush green. The incessant rains have given rise to traffic snarls and the detours were a welcome relief. The snarls reminded me of my body and the detours, all the different ways my teachers took me from brokenness to healing.

From a sobbing wreck to someone able to go through a class without tears seemed an impossibility not too long ago. It’s still shaky ground and I don’t know what might come up. But as my teacher said in the last class, you have to accept the good things also.

In gratitude

After the showers

I felt lightness after class last evening. It’s been a long time since that kind of a sensation. As I walked out of the institute, there was a tiny spring in my step and my senses felt more alive than they have in a while.

Getting to class is a mix of fear and surrender. Fear of constricting and having tides of tears and surrender when I show up knowing that I’ll be the only one having these spells. I let go into the hands of my teachers and they look after me. I keep wanting to get over this soon so they don’t have to sort me out every other day but I suppose it’s really not in my hands.

The 90 odd minutes I spend in the large hall are 90 minutes of discovery. It’s an active practice despite being propped and helped. None of the passive, watching from my corner kind of practice. Here I am naked, fully stripped of whatever image I held of myself as a collected and calm person. There is nothing save my body and heart and they’re raw. My mortal fear was losing control in public and that has happened so many times here in the middle of so many people. There is nothing left to hide so I avert my eyes.

I shared with my sister about my frequent breakdowns in class and she pointed out that I never cried when different kinds of difficult situations cropped up. That included deaths, illnesses, massive accidents and abuse. Seen in that context, this tearing up is very little considering that this expulsion is about 30 odd years of bottling everything in.

The pragmatist in me would push aside having to deal with difficult feelings and focus on fixing the situation. In fact, in a previous session when the tears flew fast while in a swinging sirsasana, I felt helplessness like the one I experienced as a little girl. I always avoided experiencing the stronger and difficult emotions and focused on the positive. In the bargain, I didn’t learn to walk through feelings that were painful. They were shut in a box and pushed out of memory.

All these days, anything that had to do with opening the chest area just dislodged heaves of sorrow. It still comes but yesterday was less difficult. In one of the poses, my legs started to tremble for no apparent reason. Through the duration of that pose, I felt ironlike stubbornness of unshed tears and the rigidity of control. Pockets of tightness in different places that had been solidified by years of pride in being resilient and self-sufficient. The high point of the session was after cycles of being helped in and out of sirsasana – vipareeta dandasana repeatedly. It felt good. I didn’t know my body had the capacity to do that. Maybe one has to lose everything to start finding oneself.

There were moments of tears, tightness and tremors. But, there were also moments of something else. Newness, maybe? Considering the rains and lush green all around, I’m thinking green shoots after heavy showers.

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New shoot of a Calla Lily in my balcony after the rains

In gratitude