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.

Holiday Practice – Inversions

Everytime I think there will be a routine, things change. The last few days were a whirlwind with travel, some work at the institute and a guest. Evening practice took a backseat and now it is back to morning practice with some institute duty.

A long tiring day but had to make a note here today for a special day. Admissions opened today and it was lovely to be back at RIMYI and meet so many old faces. I met a fellow student today and we reminisced about being in therapy class together. Another yoga friend mentioned that it was nice to see me as an active part of the institute. I hadn’t realized how my involvement with the place has grown, it has been slow and very natural. I am forever grateful to RIMYI and my teachers and Guruji for the gift of yoga.

The ground floor has been redesigned and it looks much brighter and more open now. The halls are the same with a fresh coat of paint. Over 2 years since the place closed down and finally we will be back in the hall. It is all rather exciting.

As for practice, it was completely inversions with variations of Sirsasana and Sarvangasana. It was interesting to note how there is more access with the legs not feeling the effort and the dorsal back yielding better. The neck is still a problem area but it is also a study area. I am reminded of something one of my teachers said, Sirsasana is done by the shoulders and Sarvangasana is done by the back of the head. Niralamba Sarvangasana was better today while Karnapeedasana told me it was missed.

 

Holiday Practice – Garudasana

RIMYI follows an academic calendar from June to April. May is simply too hot for class. Usually, I’d feel mildly bereft but this year, I have been looking forward to this month. The last couple of years has been packed with classes and the last one in particular was intense with the additional commitments. So, this time off from structured class has been much needed.

Today’s practice was meant to be inversions but had to abandon it midway as the body was uncooperative. But, it was good as the enquiry into a shaky Ardha Chandrasana found me in Garudasana. There was no conscious sequence followed, it was more of play and exploration. Long story short, Garudasana was what I needed to practise. Inversions didn’t get thrown out completely though. I did end up in Sarvangasana that was tall, steady and comfortable. Even the Ek pada Sarvangasana had leftover imprints of the earlier pose.

While in Garudasana, I thought about the name as I was getting into the pose and that changed the texture of the asana. Simply invoking the idea of the bird invoked power, stability, control and an effortlessness. A mythical bird that features in the epics, it belongs to the raptor family like kites and eagles and epitomize elegance. It is a pleasure to watch them in the sky, whether they’re riding the thermals or swooping down. They embody power and effortless grace in their control and speed. Rupa, Lavanya, Balam.

The sutra says, रूपलावण्यबलवज्रसंहननत्वानि कायसंपत् . Guruji’s translation reads, ‘Perfection of the body consists of beauty of form, grace, strength, compactness, and the hardness and brilliance of a diamond’. In most of the commentaries, there is barely anything on this sutra. The Garuda Purana though has a lovely section (15) that unpacks the body, physical and esoteric. It provides a tidy account of the human embodiment which points to the way in which the body can be made fit for yoga. It is paradoxical at times how much the study of the body is really a study of the self beyond the confines of matter.

Practice is like a walk, you never quite know what you will discover. No matter how the body and mind behave, there is something revealed. I’ve been in a bit of a slump on the professional front. Part of the perils of working independently. But, these times also provide an opportunity for immersion in things that bring a sense of contentment and fulfilment. Practice, the written word, walks, trees and skies. Somehow, I find it harder to do work which does not sync with the rest of my life and that makes it a very narrow road to walk. Some days like today are a complete surrender to the Guru, the subject and silence. The answers will come, they usually do.

Notes

Supta Tadasana, Urdhva Hastasana, Trikonasana, Vira bhadrasana 1, Ardha Chandrasana, Supta Padangushtasana, Uthita Hasta Padangushtasana supported, Sirsasana, Supta Virasana, Supta Padangushtasana 2, Upavishta Konasana, Ardha Chandrasana, Garudasana, Ardha Chandrasana, Chair supported independent Sarvangasana, Ek pada sarvangasana, Vipareeta Karani, Savasana.

Ardha

In general, there is a sort of established pattern of asana categories covered every month at RIMYI. First week is standing poses, second one is usually forward bends, third belongs to backbends, fourth to pranayama. If there is a fifth class, it is an inversions special. This month has 5 weeks and today was the inversions tasting. The asanas taken for study were all the ‘ardha‘ variations of Sirsasana, Adho Mukha Vrikshasana and Halasana.

From a personal point of view, it was great to spend time in these as I find my way back to staying upside down. I’ve found them a challenging group primarily due to fear of injuring compromised parts of my body. While I’ve used willpower to stay and progress, it was not sustainable for very long. So, I had to retrace my steps and use alternate asanas as I worked on ability in other areas. And gradually the necessary prerequisites have slowly developed, making the poses better accessible. There is also good sense now to err on the side of caution rather than simply push through. Today’s ardha sirsasana/ urdhva dandasana was a good way to experience the firmness and lightness of the legs, the lift of the spine that ought to be experienced in sirsasana.

The ardha stage is akin to a halfway home of sorts. Confidence is gained, new skills are learned and honed as one learns to adapt. Control is a key skill, how to maintain equanimity as the position changes. Learning to extend forward in uttanasana and prasarita padottanasana without using hands was one of the ways I learned how to enter and exit the asana in an even, measured way. Begin well, stay well and end well. Asanas are like waves, they are formed and dissolve time and again as we assume their spaces. While inhabiting that form and substance for the time we are in the pose, there is an ocean of difference in merely staying and being intimate with it. The Ardha stage is the blossoming of that intimacy.