Practice and Plateaus

Back in the hall after Diwali break and it was a quiet practice session in the morning. It was a little nippy and I put my mat near the entrance where the sun lightly toasted the floor. Restorative asanas mostly. That corner found a few people huddling for warmth. While the cool floors are great in summer, in cooler weather, they can be, well, cold. Some of Prashantji’s words from the Patanjali Jayanti Q & A session kept circling in my head. There are some answers there that I need to apply, implement. The sibling also echoed similar sentiments so I’ve been re-examining and working on rearranging things in my life.

Recently, I read something which resonated loudly.

“​If you always put limits on yourself and what you can do, physical or anything, you might as well be dead. It will spread into your work, your morality, your entire being. There are no limits, only plateaus. But you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.” – Bruce Lee

I didn’t quite identify the plateau phase for what it is. And that last sentence echoed Geetaji’s exhortation. The plateaus are such an essential part of the journey. One needs time to assimilate and synthesize before moving on. While it appears static, there is a lot happening under the surface, just that it is not visible. Perhaps, one doesn’t really slow down enough or maybe the sensitivity is lacking to observe and note dispassionately. All one thinks of is the seeming stagnation.

Post practice this morning, I sat outside for a while and tried to think about what my practice showed me today. And today’s observation was that asana is a container for the breath, mind and body to play. Asana as a seat is a witnessing of that interwoven nature of all three. In my raw state, all I see are glimpses and the presence of all three but isolating the strands to identify them individually and in their interconnected way is not available. I suppose one needs to spend time in lots of plateaus and persist with devotion and courage. (1.14)

Week wrapped backwards

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

Vipareeta Dandasana Morning and Evening expressions

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

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

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

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

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

Studentship

What a fabulous day! 

There is a steady rhythm to the week with its fullness. Class, chores, a little work and a little tinkering in terms of asana practice. Thursdays see me practice in the hall now, something I had thought I would do once the youngling started college. Usually, it is a repetition of whatever was done the previous day in class to sort of reinforce the learning. But today, I had planned to work on ekpada sirsasana and sarvangasana. So, prepped accordingly and got into the pose when one of the old timers came and showed me an area to work on. So, out with the ekpada it was and the rest of my time was devoted to learning that action. I went into ardha sirsasana to learn multiple actions in the pose. By the end of my practice session, I had an experience in and of sirsasana that was a first.

The day was a full one as I spent the rest of it with a niece I was meeting after a decade. Conversation, some decadent cake and coffee and loads of laughter later, it was time for class and I was mildly regretting stuffing my face. Thankfully, the evening session doesn’t see hardcore inversions so I thought I could wing it. I didn’t have the time to think of having a full belly as the teacher took us through various approaches. The highlight was a lovely adho mukha baddakonasana. I struggle with baddakonasana and a forward bend in it is way off without enough prep work  but today’s class took me into a quiet pose, one that I could have stayed in for longer. 

At day’s end, I feel exhilarated. I learned many things, discovered many things. Often, asana practice is simply toiling and tinkering with very little dramatic change. All the regular work improves range but those paradigm shifts happen when the necessary tilling of the body’s soil is done. Although it looks like a lot of body work, it is not about the body at all. It is a seeing.

It’s been about 4 months since the institute opened and the shape of my days is very different from what I could have imagined. In the very initial days of this academic year, it was confusing for me, especially while assisting. Somehow practising in the hall is where a whole different kind of education is happening. Between the varied levels of classes and the engagement in them, I am being shaped. While outwardly it seems like training to be an assistant or teacher, I feel I’m really being opened as a student.    

Why practise?

Despite spending so much time at the institute, I have never practised in the hall, barring a couple of times, pre-pandemic. Practice is a solitary endeavour at home. I suppose it is a bit of shyness at having my struggles out in the open. In a class, I never feel that but practice is such an intimate and private process that I am hesitant. But, I had decided that once the child began college, I didn’t need to rush home and could do at least one practice session a week in the hall. So, today it was. And quite an interesting one. I remember one of Geetaji’s old students telling me that she used to tell all the practitioners to get together and practise but it rarely happened. The household usually takes prime place especially when children are young and/or there are elderly family members. It is a difficult spot. I digress. This post is to make note of a day when I did something different.

I wasn’t quite sure about what to do so started off with Supta Padangushtasana 1 and worked on similar asanas in terms of limb orientation. Practice is like playing with Lego blocks, you make, break, remake, redesign, etc. Long story short, I got a couple of cues from one of the old-time RIMYI teachers that dramatically improved what I was trying to work on. And in the bargain, the action opened up areas that were not accessible. Later I got chatting with a couple of others who were there. I was able to help them and could also request them to give me a hand with some of my asanas. And just like that a couple of hours went by.

While speaking with them, I realised that my learning process is different from theirs. They pursued asanas and had a final pose to show for it while mine was a more circuitous route with a focus on the intermediate actions in them. The downside is I don’t have a final pose very often as I don’t practice many of the advanced poses but when I am ready, the asana sort of happens without too much of a struggle. In some sense, this method is an imprint of one of my teachers. His classes would often be peppered with ‘as intermediate students… ‘ and go on to talk about the stages of moving into a pose, the breath in it etc. His asanas and assists are sheer artistry to watch and experience and therein lies the appeal of yoga as art. As I type, I remember one Punya Thithi where he spoke about his youthful experiences and Guruji giving him a copy of The Art of Yoga

After practice, I was thinking of the process of learning, education, teaching. Why does one learn? How does one learn? How does one learn to learn? Why does one teach? How does one teach? Why the need for education? Many of these spring from the special weekly sessions and simmer in the background. Wednesdays are particularly heavily loaded with classes starting at 7am. There is a lot of input through the multiple classes and training session and medical class. I finally crawl home by 9pm only to speed out of home the next morning at 5:30am. I do get a few hours in the afternoon in which I hop over to a friend’s place and take a snooze. And some days, I have a hearty meal at a nearby cafe. Today, it was Thalipeeth with curd, fresh off the griddle and served with curd and pickle. The owner later got me a small portion of sheera and insisted that I have it. It was a pure ghee and jaggery laden indulgence.

Post demonstrating for the evening class, it struck me once again how yoga has been an organic unfolding for me. If I am asked, why do I practise asana, I have a different reason today. Earlier I would feel it was for physical wellbeing, mental clarity, emotional stability etc. but now it is because when I am on the mat, there is nothing but the action at hand. The world sort of ceases to exist for that spell.

Learning to learn

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

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

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

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

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

Samatvam

Technically, I am doing only one offline class. In the others, I am a student but from an assisting perspective. They are vastly different. I am comfortable in following instructions and adapting to my physical conditions, getting in and out of poses, using props, supporting areas that need help etc. but when it comes to other bodies, the reading from a helper’s perspective is a new one. As an observer, it is easy to simply note but while adjusting, there is technique, skill and agility required. It is a different kind of learning. In the medical class, the method is one of improvisation so there is a whole lot of gear shifting. And then there are online classes, three that I attend besides 2 as a demonstrator. Those are different in the quietness of my home.

I make notes else there is no way to keep track of the progression of classes, the way the theme of one class links to another. They are short ones that I go through before a class to remind myself. I also find myself watching and practising to videos, reading and writing. In short, it is like being in school or college. And I’m loving it. So much so, that other things seem like disturbances. If it weren’t for the need to pay bills and the unavoidable familial and social commitments, I probably would just want to study forever.

Yesterday evening, I was playing the helper’s role in an evening class and as the teacher exhorted the students to “do maximum”, I found myself smiling, remembering how it would feel impossible when she would say that and all that I could hear in my head would be, ‘when will she say, ok come down’ and the relief that would rush through the muscles. I could see that in the students. But at the end, there would be a sense of accomplishment and a spring in my step while leaving. I see that light in others. It is very interesting to observe bodies, they speak quite eloquently. While assisting, some of them resist while others welcome the help. These days, I find myself slowly assuming my place in that hall and providing what is needed, listening and doing. All I have to do is simply listen to the teacher and see if her instructions are being implemented.

While it was a mix of last week and 5th week kind of asanas, if I had to pick a theme, it would be samatvam, evenness. In one of the recent yoga sutra sessions or perhaps it was one of his classes, Srineet mentioned how ‘samatvam yoga uchyate‘ which is used commonly as a definition does not really say it all, Samatvam is more in the nature of a result or effect of yoga. It makes sense to see it both ways. After all, cause and effect are the same, just different manifestations.

Pot Pourri

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

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

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

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

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

Backbending in July

Recently, I remembered how, as a beginner, I wished that I could study with Prashantji someday and then it struck me that I was in his class now. And that sort of summarizes my RIMYI journey. Slow, meandering, unexpected but completely organic. The more I attend classes of varying levels, I see the incredible value of the foundational actions in asanas. Keeping at the basics has actually been a faster progression.

The last 2 weeks have been hectic with multiple overlapping deadlines but classes were a constant and they were instrumental in some breakthrough in personal practice. I injured the problem knee over the weekend and so couldn’t do many asanas in the classes. So a switch to the therapy sequence from a few years ago. But this time, I explored some of the kriyas Prashantji talks about and it was illuminating. There is such a marked difference in sensitivity and consequently, access. Like yesterday we were in some quiet Urdhva Dhanurasanas and then were asked to do the regular one without much attention and the violence to the nerves in the latter was so stark. It was like sensing in HD.

Yesterday, Urdhva Dhanurasana was also a learning period as the teachers and assistants worked on each other with hands-on adjusting. It was quite interesting to work with different kinds of bodies, see how the adjustments worked etc. In the bargain, I think I must have done 30 odd Urdhva Dhanurasanas but it was not tiring. I’ve not been practising it much lately and anticipated soreness today but there was minimal discomfort. I suppose there is more skill and less muscular effort in the execution of these poses now.

Speaking of backbends, Sunday’s class was a Chair Vipareeta Dandasana marathon with nearly 90 minutes of the asana, with breaks of course. But, that was again another first for me. Prashantji spoke about yoga as ‘happenings’ rather than ‘doings’ and happenings need ‘stayings’. And somehow that long hour and a half exploration of Vipareeta Dandasana provided the ‘staying’ necessary to move far beyond normal capacity with no distress.

Much of the teachings of yoga are esoteric, hidden in plain sight but the likes of me cannot decode it. It is an extremely slow revealing as one listens to teachers, listens to them carefully, repeatedly and slowly things become apparent, like clouds drifting apart to let the sun appear. At these junctures, there is usually a coming together of different influences speaking of the very same principles. Some of my reading and listening these past weeks have been a case in point.

Most days, I first lie on the Vipareeta Dandasana bridge before the beginning of class. It is the prop that held me through inexplicable heaviness of the heart but now it is a feeling of surrender that I experience. In some sense, it is a prayer, an entering into a sanctuary. The feel of the hard wood on my back and the release of the body as it yields to the support are always a quiet gathering. At day’s end, I’m simply glad for the opportunity to study in person with my teachers, feel the comfort of the call and response of the invocation and experience the gift of one man’s incredible sadhana.

Unfolding

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

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

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

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

Sequencing is an art

Practised to a sequence from one of the classes last year. At the time, the effort required overshadowed all the other tastes in the asana. It is only with the passing of time that we see progress. On an everyday basis, all I see is what I cannot do, not what comes easier. From this distance, I was simply struck by the creative genius of the sequence he employed that day. As a teacher, he has been more a devotee of the subject and his Guru. It comes through very clearly in his delivery. He knows LOY inside out and has a fantastic memory with respect to the photos in the hall.

While I know and appreciate the importance of sequencing, in my notes, the sequence would be secondary to the tidbits about Guruji or the Sutras or analogies or a focus action. The bodily effort is simply a way to prepare one to explore one’s own true self. But, today I was struck with the threading of a sequence as an art. The principles of sequencing are not complex, they are based in common sense and are not rigid. Often, one mistakes the list of asanas as a standard over the counter delivery for certain issues. Some things are established and we don’t mess around with it but else, there is a lot of freedom to experiment.

At my level, it is still body driven with rudimentary awareness of breath and mind. I observe but do not have the knowledge or maturity needed for experimenting with it. But, sometimes there is a brief experience of that cohesion, like in savasana today.

In RIMYI news, the institute gets more lively by the day with things getting ready for the fresh academic year. It is a different era now with both offline and online classes. As for me, I am simply happy to be back. It has been a constant through these last years even when it was shut. If I had to articulate what draws me there, I wouldn’t have one answer. RIMYI is many things. It is the generosity of a man who gave all of himself to the world, it is the devotion and dedication of the teachers who carry on his legacy, it is the space itself- a pulsating one that has remained a place of study, endeavour and transformation for so many. I could go on but it probably would not make much sense if one hasn’t experienced it for themselves. Sharing a few pictures here for you Suzy. The last image is of the space allocated for the book store and is adjacent to the new entrance.