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.    

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.

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.

Inverted Introverted

Inversions and backbends changed my life. I might even dare to say that they transformed my living. These two groups of asanas were pretty much the only ones I worked with a few months ago and eventually there was a reset that happened in my head and heart. Initially I thought it was a probably a short lived effect that would wear off as therapy classes came to an end and a couple of regular ones took its place but so far, it’s been a daily reset, a blank slate every day.

Being upside down and bending backward so far that I couldn’t help but surrender to the unknown bestowed gifts of vulnerability without fear, a wide open heart and joy. These days, Sirsasana and Sarvangasana are usually the twin heartbeats of my home practice. They can be playful too like when I stand on my head on a work call. It felt like I was channeling Mr. Menuhin who conducted Beethoven’s 5th in Sirsasana. 🙂

About Sirsasana, Guruji writes, “Regular and precise practice of Sirsasana develops the body, disciplines the mind and widens the horizons of the spirit. One becomes balanced and self-reliant in pain and pleasure, loss and gain, shame and fame and defeat and victory.”
And about Sarvangasana, he says, “It is no over-statement to say that if a person regularly practises Sarvangasana he will feel new vigour and strength, and will be happy and confident. New life will flow into him, his mind will be at peace and he will feel the joy of life.”

Most days I practise in the mornings. It usually begins with a rope Adho Mukha Svanasana and then moves on to whatever might be the areas I want to explore. Sometimes it is just maintenance of movement and at others it is about control. At still other times it is to study connections between distant parts of the body. I’m not sure if I am imagining these call and response sort of actions or if they are real but I observe them as they arise and trust the process of svadhyaya to reveal the answers.

Learning to come down from Sirsasana with both legs

The last few days were about sweat. Sirsasana usually feels the tiniest bit lopsided and I’ve noticed that the sweating would be predominantly on one side of the head and neck. Lately, it seems more evenly distributed. The pose feels stable too at multiple levels. In addition to asana practice, I’ve also been dabbling in a little bit of prep work for handstands which has probably helped in stronger shoulders and better access. This too is a change, to experiment with other ways and methods.

Many years ago, I didn’t think that I could ever do a headstand due to cervical spondylosis. But five years later, it is a regular asana. Backbends seemed impossible, some of them still do but there is enough sureness about the ‘atha’ of practice. This yoga journey has been slow, asana proficiency and ability slower but what has emerged from all of it has been an increased sense of the first sutra. Maybe that is what gives stability and dynamism to accept and continue a changed way of life in these uncertain times of a pandemic. I may or may not be able to do a Mandalasana but the effort on my mat today is all that matters. And if experience is any indicator, the pose happens eventually when you are not actively seeking it.

Over the past few weeks of lockdown I can see progress by virtue of a regular practice. There are tentative forays into drop-backs that are encouraging. The beauty of Iyengar yoga is how the learnings become available to you in a drip fashion, sometimes years after first encountering them. I do miss the exhilaration of a taught class but this is a different flavour of learning. I guess all the classes we’ve had so far helped to get us to this point where even if we never got to attend a class, we can continue our studies in a deep way. And maybe that is the way we are meant to learn, heuristically. Why practice? At a very gross level, it keeps my body machinery in working order. More importantly, it provides equanimity.

There is a lovely image of Guruji holding Abhijata’s knees in Dwipada Vipareeta Dandasana with the caption, Yoga is equanimity in last year’s calendar. It is a pose that has seen me heave sobs and also filled me with light. These days, it is usually unsupported or with the wall to learn how to lift. Mostly, the yogi’s prostration has kept the slate clean for this sadhaka allowing her the ability to see the humour of her follies and acknowledge small victories with the same welcome. It is a beloved asana, one that brings the best of inversions and backbends in one energizing and calming pose.

In my readings, I recently finished the Aitareya Upanishad once again and it was a fresh seeing of the text. The subject matter of the text is creation and as always, the lyricism in it is magical. The Upanishadic delivery is one of love between teacher and taught, intimacy and spontaneity, stability and dynamism. Not too different from Iyengar yoga. Many students bristle at the no-nonsense and strict delivery of teaching. As for me, I’ve only ever seen their compassion and love. I can still hear their clear voices and laughter when I am on my mat.

We are fairly resilient as a species, innovative as well. And this Covid-19 pandemic will pass one day like the ones before. Nothing lasts forever- not happiness, not sorrow, not even life. I suppose at the end of the day what matters is endeavour, regardless of the fruit of labour.

Sometimes it is difficult to muster up the will to do anything at all. I have been in that place too and had to learn to ask for help. And that made all the difference. Giving help is much easier but one does a disservice by not asking for it, to oneself as well as the giver. A few months go, a real estate agent told me that it was important to receive as much as it was to give. I didn’t end up needing his services and now feel that the encounter was just to hear a lesson I had to learn.

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.

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.

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.

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

Look ma, no wall!

One of my wishes was to be able to do an unsupported Sirsasana by the end of the year. I didn’t have to wait that long, it happened. And then happened again. Simply because of trying out something a fellow student mentioned. I haven’t tried it in class yet. Maybe in the next one. Of course, looking at a picture made me cringe but I was elated for a while. Still am. The happiness of a child learning to write a complete word. Then, all she wants to do is repeat it until the novelty wears off. 

The academic year is almost at an end and it has been an interesting one. It began with a steep learning curve which slowed down to smaller, quieter steps forward. The knee injury was a good opportunity to pause and rearrange my life a bit. Of course, many old patterns came up alongwith it but overall, it has been a blessing in disguise. It has taught me to be more seeking in my practice rather than just waiting for my teachers to tell me. In the process, I realised it was more the mind I needed to fix than my body. The body heals itself, it is the mind that needs treatment through the body. Just like my teacher says…

In the meanwhile, I found pleasure in swimming while also discovering deep silences under water. The breath has started to become a friend as I let go and surrender to the flow. It is a different experience to be suspended in a medium which can either support or swallow you. As an element, it’s an interesting one to explore through its different aspects. Benign, malevolent, neutral. Three different states- ice, water and steam, all with different gunas. Water in the womb, water in our bodies and on our planet. Universally used by all that lives. Infact, the beginning of life itself. The purifier in all rituals from birth to death and beyond. There is much to learn from contemplating the building blocks of life. It is a theme common in the Upanishads as well. Our rishis of old had pretty much cracked the whole thing and expressed it so eloquently. Despite all the commercialism associated with the sacred art and science of yoga today, the pure truth endures, hidden in plain sight. Quite like the secrets of water under open skies. They invite you to dive deep and dissolve. After all, isn’t life really a preparation for dissolution? A bit like all asana being preparation for savasana…

Hari Om