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.

IMG_20191025_153156.jpg

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.

IMG_20190914_160250__01
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.

 

Yoga Help(er)

It’s been a couple of Fridays now that I am not a student at the medical/therapy class but I am still present. ‘Change of roles today?‘, ‘You used to be a student, so nice to see you as a helper‘ and a host of other encouraging remarks and smiles make me feel shy. I’m not quite willing to accept that I may be a ‘helper’, it seems unreal. So much so that I didn’t want to post it here but it is also a part of my journey. When my teacher suggested that I come to help, I was just grateful to be able to keep coming to the big hall. I would have been content just to pass props or tidy up and just watch but I also get to be there for someone.

Today, I was with one student. Mostly, just observing and assisting as instructed. We spent some time together and in close proximity, I realized we both were the same, riddled with fear. Her fears were predominantly about falling and hurting herself all over again. (She was wheelchair bound a few years ago.) Mine were about facing myself. Listening to her talk, I could see how fear leaks into our perceptions about ourselves and what we can or cannot do. At the start of the session, her body was in a lopsided way and by the end of the class, there was a symmetry and calmness in her face. She had done what she thought she couldn’t. I would feel that way after class but could never see it for myself until I saw it in her.

The only way out for me was to trust my teachers when I didn’t have faith in anything. Their belief was enough. When I think back about it now, there was some incredible amount of surrender that was at work for yoga to work its magic. For almost a year before I worked up the courage to speak to my teacher, I was in a slump. There wasn’t enough yoga balance to see me through one of the most difficult years of my life. Despite knowing what I needed, I couldn’t do anything to get myself out of deep despair. I needed to ask for help and then be willing to receive it. It is an incredible privilege to have the option to do so.

These days, I’m happy. Not relatively happy. Just happy. Every day comes without the weight of yesterday or tomorrow. Much of my life is uncertain and I have no firm ground under my feet but there is faith. In yoga. The same yoga that allowed me to rebuild again and teach that no matter what, one can always start again. It feels good to be able to practice regularly like I used to. And as always, surprising to see how much is remembered by the body and heart.

I find it a little easier to trust myself and allow others in. The other day after class, there were so many hellos and how are yous that it felt like, maybe I am with my people.