“Learning is as much an art as teaching”

In the course of classes, assisting, library work etc. there is much teaching available. Senior teachers guide, books and videos educate and so on. Often in the classes for the advanced students, there is an exhortation to learn, to catch what is unsaid but available as experience. That is the heuristic process the teachers would like us to embark upon.

In the process of learning, the architect is really the student. The teacher, teachings rain their bounty but it could either soak and seep into one’s being or then run off. There needs to be preparation, there needs to be a strong why behind the desire to learn. Sometimes it is easy to slip into the metric of years of experience to determine readiness, but it is not a hard and fast criterion. The preparation is more a cultivation of the heart and is available to all.

It has been interesting to see how all that I dabbled in over the last few years has now begun to start coming together. Whether memorising, rereading, writing or blogging, they all have served richly. As M and I continue to read, I see that connections to texts I’ve read earlier arise spontaneously. And that in turn makes me look at related sutras. At the heart of yoga is the Yoga sutras of Patanjali. It circles back to the aphorisms every time. As a text, it is ever fresh.

The invocation to Sage Patanjali at the start of every single session is a powerful reminder of everything we need to remember as yoga practitioners. What is expected as preparation, what is to be explored, the pitfalls and the promise. The invocation we chant at the beginning is an act of devotion, a reminder to ourselves about the twin practices of abhyasa and vairagyam. It is a remembering of our teachers, Gurus and their Gurus all the way until the principle of Patanjali. There can be no true grace in learning without surrender.

Secular studies don’t ask this of its students. But, journeys of the spirit call for the courage to surrender to the unknown. Shraddha, Virya, Smriti and Samadhi Prajna form the base of one’s studentship. The second pada begins with the kriya of sadhana. Core of the yoga sutras has an entire chapter devoted to Sadhana Krama which opens the four aspects of this krama- sodhana, sosana, sobhana and samana. The journey of one’s sadhana is from the body to the Self even if it may not culminate there for most of us. It is the direction in which we proceed.

Abhyasa is primarily to remove the antarayas that afflict us. That requires the laser focus of practice devoted to a single principle. At the crux of it, abhyasa is a practice of purification. From sattva shuddhi comes the yogyata or eligibility. It is brilliant, the beautiful way in which the sutras factor in all aspects of human psychology while laying out a system for self realizatiion.

Sometimes I wonder if the initial purpose of this blog is served anymore. It started because I couldn’t find anything that I could relate to as a raw beginner. Asanas, yes but more than that, I sought to understand what I might expect along the way. I’m still a beginner but there has been a shift from that arambhavastha and the reflections here have mirrored that. But, this has also been a space to document my meander. I’ve decided to do something I did a couple of years back, stay with one thought from an old calendar. This month’s thought is, ‘Yoga is awareness’. Hopefully, I may wrap up the contemplation with a post.

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)

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.    

“Learning deeply means learning slowly”

June is hurtling full speed. So many changes and turnings. Volunteering, hectic work schedules and everyday household chores have meant packed days. My teacher asked how I managed to do so much and my immediate reply was that I start fairly early in the day. But later as I thought about it, I realized that I pack in a fair bit simply because I only do things that I like, things that make me happy. Simple things that feed my heart and head, like yoga, walks, trees, pottering around in my little balcony garden, reading etc. While the trade off has been a more frugal living, I have had a largesse of contentment and energy.

Offline classes began last week and it has been both familiar and strange. Familiar because of the same teachers and space but strange with the reduced intake of students. There is a pivoting and finding balance in offline and hybrid modes. In some ways, adapting to the pandemic was easier than adapting to reverting to a pre Covid routine. In some way, the increased convenience of online has meant people choosing to stick to it exclusively as well. There is practical merit since one avoids traffic and parking woes, time taken for the commute etc. but I also see it as increasingly isolating. With the increasing dependence on technology and screens, our sensory experience of the world also gets reduced as the years pass. We’re creatures of nature, meant to fully inhabit our embodiment but that is fast fading. I wonder what we will evolve into. But, that lies in the realm of imaginings and I’ll let it be.

Classes have been good, practice is decent. My struggles with balancing and Sirsasana continue so have taken a different route with focus on Sarvangasana. And I’m reasonably happy with the progress. I’ve been playing around with Niralamba Sarvangasana from a stable shoulder stand. I thought my problem with those poses was more of the mind but actually they are to do with the existing conditions and old injuries of the neck, shoulder and arm besides extreme hyper extension of my joints. As a school child, my PT teacher would get exasperated when my arms would refuse to straighten while marching. There has been some reduction in the angle of hyperextension over the years thanks to asana adjustments.

Earlier today, I was observing the participants as I was watching the class and saw myself in many of them. The same difficulty in lifting the back and buttocks, thighs and knees in Halasana and it all makes so much sense now. The uncompromising attention to limbs and trunk. And once again I am struck by the systematic and logical structuring of asana actions for beginners. I love beginner classes. There is a certain vigour, freshness and energy to it which changes the alchemy of the body and mind. I love the other classes too as they get more subtle and work on the breath and mind but much of it is way above my paygrade. I’m happy to simply absorb by osmosis. I know it will make sense when there is readiness and ripeness. Till then, we tinker. Recently, I was rereading a book (Range By David Epstein) I quite enjoyed and was struck once again by a line in it, “Learning deeply means learning slowly.” Iyengar yoga is an invitation to learn deeply. Not just of asana, but of oneself.

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 – Menstruation

As women, the menstrual cycle provides a pretty reliable reading of the body and mind. To some degree, there is an internal sense of where one is on the cycle simply by virtue of how the body feels. And if one is a practitioner, asanas speak it loudly. Post Covid or mid 40s, I can’t be sure which one or if it is both, my cycles have been mildly irregular and there have been changes. It is a little disconcerting for someone who has been regular as clockwork. Long story short, Day 1 of cycle and it was early but that explained the practice experience yesterday and the day before.

Supine poses, supported forward bends and supported Setuband Sarvangasana was on the menu this evening. Morning saw some supine asanas to relieve discomfort. It also felt appropriate to read through a much-thumbed copy of an essay by Geetaji on the practice of women.

During practice, I also listened to a talk about props by Abhijata from Yoganusasanam 2015. Earlier, I would feel a bit of a missing out when I was menstruating but now it is a welcome relief to stay in supported asanas. I also notice a recalibration of my cycles to the lunar phases every 6 months. I don’t know if there is anything significant about this change but there is a change in creative output every time it is synced to the full moon.

About 7-8 years ago, I got introduced to the idea of practising/ training as per one’s cycle by my then yoga teacher. I used the concept while training for my first half marathon and it became a sort of personal blueprint. I mapped it for a couple of years alongside food intake, sleep and also dominant thought patterns. It was useful to get acquainted with my own being in a methodical way. I no longer maintain the log but the lessons from that endeavour has allowed me to take care of myself as I needed through these years.

I also worked in the space of sustainable menstruation for a few years which opened up a whole universe of challenges. On one hand there was a section of the population that struggled with basic needs of hygiene and sanitation while another grappled with deep rooted gender related anxieties. Across both groups, there were menstrual imbalances. A significant chunk of it could possibly be rectified by simple changes to food and exercise but there was reluctance to change lifestyle habits. While there is a great deal of awareness about the physiological process and the science behind it, we have lost much of traditional sensibility in dealing with a natural phenomenon. There are a few people who ride against the tide but polarization in a digital world is so strong that it is an uphill task to have a reasonable discussion without one side tearing the other down. Like Abhi says, we need to first learn to connect then to communicate, only then can we integrate and there can be union.

Holiday Practice – Propped

Every once in a long while, I get the rods out and play around with poses I would do during the therapy classes. Back then it was an elaborate setup with 4 steel rods tied with 4 small belts, 4 wooden ones tied with 2 belts and 4 others to keep the legs fused as one. The first asana was always urdhva prasarita padasana. In the big hall, I would be tied to a column but at home, it was simply legs up the wall.

Today I used the steel rods and proceeded to do whatever standing poses and inversions that I could do with straight legs. One of the culminating poses was Niralamba Sarvangasana and it was a whole lot steadier for having the rods. As I type, I think it may be useful to go back and explore a little more. All this while, I only saw it as a prescription for the knees and treated it as such. But that is missing the forest for the trees.

The holidays have settled into a nice rhythm of walks/reading in the morning and practice in the evening. There’s also a re-read of the Kathopanishad happening in the background. The opening valli is a delightful one with the stage being set for the rest of the Upanishad to follow. As an obedient son, Nachiketa finds himself in the presence of the Lord Yama, (Lord of Dharma/ Death). And it got me thinking about the trait of obedience. It used to be a much desired trait in the young people or students/ seekers. These days, not so much. And I see how each era needs its own interpretation of old texts to remain relevant.

The evening routine is one I look forward to and these entries too. Actually, there is a yoga practitioner to thank for getting roused out of my blogging hiatus. If it were not for their enthusiasm, I would have remained in hibernation. Somewhere I forgot the reason why I started this web notebook. It is both a linear journey as well as a circular one. There is a starting point on the linear one but at some point there is movement along the circumference of living where there is no end or beginning.

6 cups of coffee in baddakonasana

There used to be a time I was proud of my ability to sit in a baddakonasana, padmasana etc.. I had pride too, in the ability to go to sleep in supta virasana. Those were the days I was running long distance and these asanas were part of my everyday. Naturally, the body adapted and the flexibility improved. But, I was also attached to what I thought was good looking poses. 🙂

Then (2016)

Now, a few years and more than a few knocks later, I am relearning these asanas, cautiously. The sweet spot lies somewhere between fear and aggression. Doing, observing, pushing through or retreating- all of these while questioning myself if the actions spring from attachment or detachment, from pride or a spirit of enquiry.

And Now

It took me a while to come back to the mat with the regularity I have now. It also took me a long time to come back to textual studies in a more regular manner. The pandemic has proved to be an opportunity as well in the tracts of time it has created with reduced travel. Personally while I have lost work, I have gained much with an asana practice and study. It has seen me remain mostly energetic and positive.

This morning during practice, I listened to one of Geetaji’s videos from an Italian convention on YouTube. (Here’s the link). As a coffee fiend, it made me chuckle when she suggested having 6 cups of coffee in baddakonasana even as I attempted the action she was suggesting. She has a wicked sense of humour but it is often restrained, so to see her enjoying her joke was rather delightful.

While reflecting about practice and my state of mind now, I find myself comparing it against last year. The desolation I experienced then is similar to what I see in many people now. My mind was in shambles then and trying to work with the mind didn’t help things too much. I would slide back into what seemed like an endless quicksand. Asanas worked on my mind through my body. Something changed at a very intrinsic level, maybe some chemistry in the brain, I do not know. All I know that the rewiring changed completely. Practising through the pandemic has nourished my mind and kept it reasonably clear. It also made it possible for me to get myself out of the way and serve others.

Asanas make me reflect, not just on body parts or actions but also on similarities of approach and withdrawal to situations in my life. If I had to summarize asana or situations in life, it might be to say be present, do the best you can and the pose will arrange itself. Life is unpredictable, there could be injury, loss, debilitation or a pandemic but through the practice of asana, there is a courage to meet its unpredictability. There comes an ability to receive all of it without resistance. Striving on the mat involves resistance but is never resisting. There are aha moments when after working with resistance, a region suddenly bursts open into consciousness. It is a received experience.

A few days ago, while exchanging emails with a dear friend, I was reminded of a ready reckoner of the texts that I was working on some years back. Some part of it was complete but there is much that is pending, so its back to old practices that I lost when I lost my way. I do feel a regular asana practice brings back good habits quite organically, almost effortlessly. It slowly increases your ability to do much more than what you think you can do.

These times are a time out in many ways. Much of the world has retreated into itself and so there is also less distraction. Might not be a bad idea to sit on the mat in baddakonasana with 6 cups of coffee. Maybe 6 is too much, I’ll take one. 🙂

Aparigraha in a pandemic

Guruji was born during an influenza epidemic and his life was a difficult one for many decades. Even his early yoga journey was fraught with pain and hardship. He lived through pre-Independence India, poverty, ill health, loss, fame and prosperity. The one constant through it all was yoga and his sadhana went on to make him a household name. Despite all the accolades, he remained a student of the subject till the very end. Yoga was him and he was yoga. Period. For the likes of me, it is not as complete an immersion but we try to the best of our life situations.

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This morning I spent time with Pada 2 of the sutras and came back to 2.39 on aparigraha. Reflecting on it, I saw that it was basically talking about de-conditioning.

Quoting from the commentary in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,

Aparigraha means not only non-possession and non-acceptance of gifts, but also freedom from rigidity of thought. Holding on to one’s thoughts is also a form of possessiveness, and thoughts, as well as material possessions should be shunned. Otherwise they leave strong impressions on the consciousness and become seeds to manifest in future lives.”

Aparigraha is the subtlest aspect of yama, and difficult to master. Yet, repeated attempts must be made to gain pure knowledge of ‘what I am’ and ‘what I am meant for’.”

Constant inquiry is an integral part of learning yoga at RIMYI, it’s always dynamic and evolving. Never static and despite the curriculum remaining the same, the approach and teaching incorporate new elements. In a more personal context, I am reminded of what my teacher said about ‘seeds of weeds’. By working beyond just the apparent relief of body and heart, there was a reset in established patterns of thought and behaviour, a rewiring. That the mind can be addressed through the body is now internalized knowledge and not just theoretical.

It’s easy to get caught in fixed ways of thinking and feeling both on and off the mat and this clinging on prevents one from a deeper understanding of any situation. I also see it in asana as I explore beyond the actions required to assume a pose. As long as I am just repeating the instructions I have learned, I limit myself. Of course, the initial repetition is essential to internalize the method but the unfolding is in the personalizing of its interpretation. A bit like improvisation in music. Once you learn the notes and practise the scales for a suitable length of time, you can break the rules to explore and then the subject begins to also teach you.

I still remain cautious in asana but there’s an experimental feel to it as I correlate lessons from class and home practice. This week both the classes worked actively with the groin area and today’s home practice was a passive exploration of the same region from my knee therapy routine. And it taught differently. It got me thinking about how right from day 1 of a beginner’s class, the body is systematically prepared to open to its fullest capacity, literally and figuratively. Strangely, I found the beginner’s class harder than the intermediate one and it made me glad that I chose to retain the former. I guess I’m probably always going to remain a chronic beginner.

Asanas take up a small part of my day and its lessons are not about the body’s ability or progress as much as it is about mental, emotional and spiritual stretching. It is about endurance, resilience, patience, fortitude, good humour, playfulness, compassion and a whole host of other traits that allow us to live through good times and rough times with the same steadiness. These times are despairing with both a pandemic and mindless human violence. But there also exists solidarity and kindness that unite people even in these uncertain days. It may seem unbearable at the moment but all periods of transformation are difficult, individually and collectively. Eventually, we see that old ways have to evolve and adapt to meet the changing needs of a present and it calls for aparigraha. Now more so than ever.

Satyam, Tapas, Svadhyaya

I woke up in a rebellious state of mind, not wanting to practise. And then decided to continue reading the Taittiriya Upanishad. It was the best thing I could have done. What an uplifting read! It never fails to inspire, these ancient texts. Such conciseness, poetry and power, almost as though just the shapes and sounds of their syllables can change something inside. Although I’ve been reading just little portions, one section or theme at a time, today, I found myself reading more than usual.

One of the interesting things amongst many others in today’s reading was from Section 9 in the first chapter. A blue print for living as a continuum of study, practice and passing on. I found parallels in the study, practice and passing on of my understanding. In an earlier section, there is a fervent desire for material prosperity and the desire for students. I felt that the implied sense was that as long as material needs were met, the dissemination of knowledge to deserving students could occur. In the guru-shishya parampara, there were no fees, only a guru dakshina on the completion of one’s education. That has a lot of resonance in my beliefs too.

Since the passage was very beautiful and a reminder, I think I will write it down here too.

The practice of what is right and proper (ritam), as fixed by the scriptural texts, is to be done along with reading the texts oneself and propagating the truths of the same.

‘Truth’ (satyam), meaning practising in life what is understood to be right and proper, is to be pursued along with regular studies and preaching.

Penance (tapah), study (svadhyaya) and preaching (pravachane);

Control of the senses (dama), study and preaching;

tranquility (shama), study and preaching;

the ‘maintenance of fire (agneya)’, study and preaching;

offering of oblations in fire sacrifice (agnihotram), study and preaching of the Vedas;

serving the guest (athithayaha), study and preaching;

the performance of duties towards man (maanusham), study and preaching;

duties towards children (prajaha), study and preaching of the vedas;

procreation (prajanah), study and preaching;

propagation of the race (prajahitih), study and preaching;

all these things are to be practised sincerely.

Satyavaca, son of Rathitara, holds that truth (satyam) alone is to be strictly practised. Taponitys, son of Purusista declares that penance (tapas) alone is to be practised. Naka, son od Mudgaa, holds the view that the study and preaching of the Vedas (svadhyaya) alone is to be practised; that verily, is penance; aye that is penance.

The translations are a bit archaic but the Sanskrit is more inclusive and can accommodate the realities of the times that we live in. Study and preaching are svadhyaya and pravachane and can be also interpreted as self study and expression or interpretation. Seen in the context of the origin of the name of the Upanishad, Taittiriya, it is apt as the dissemination of experienced knowledge. What a beautiful guidebook for educationists! The image in the post is the story of how this Upanishad got its name.

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Image from the commentary on the Taittiriya Upanishad by Swami Chinmayananda

Some of the 12 steps could be interpreted differently in the changed contexts of human behaviour and lives today. Like procreation and propagation of the race. The choice to not have children etc. also can be seen in the light of the sheer need for a reduction in the burden on the planet. In the evolution of humankind, the reasons for procreation turned to be economical rather than evolutionary and hence this changed approach today is perhaps essential for balance. The 12 indications are good cues for contemplation in how they may be interpreted in our lives now.

This Upanishad was the very first one I read and attempted to study a few years back and it made a huge impression on me then. Subsequently, I have dipped into it off and on but this current revisiting is like reading it all over again with eyes wide open in wonder.

And also the next section which is such a song of joy and freedom!

‘I am the stimulator in the tree of universe. My fame (glory) is high as the peak of the mountains. High and pure am I like the essence in the sun; I am the power and the wealth, effulgent with intuition. Intelligent, imperishable and undecaying am I’- this is the sacred recitation of Trishanku after he realized the Truth.

And part of the commentary- Trishanku rightly declares that to know ourselves, to complete our rediscovery, to realize our divine nature, to live as God in ourselves, is the only harbour wherein the frail mind shall no more be exposed to the storms of contentions and the surging waves of desires for wealth or temptations for power.

Much of my writing is really an endeavour to ‘rediscover’ not ‘discover’, what is usually referred to as cleaning the mirror. This just may end up going up on my wall as a constant reminder on how to live a full life of service.

My heart feels lighter for having read this today and the encouragement to live exalted is just what this tired spirit needed.