The song of the mountain

Tadasana is the first asana in the repertoire of yogasanas. Deceptively simple looking and often glossed over as an opening pose, the mountain pose does not have the glamour of backbends or the elegance of forward extensions. Yet, it has been a fascinating study for me since I began my journey in yoga. Every time, I spend a significant amount of time in the asana at a stretch, it reveals more of its wakefulness.

A couple of nights ago, I listened to a lovely concert, Songs of the Himalayas. It was inspired by the composer’s trek in the mountains and the stories he collected along the way, mostly of the simplicity and wisdom of its people. The musicians were brilliant and it was altogether a lovely immersive meditation of sorts. This morning my practice revolved around tadasana and I was reminded of the motif of the mountains. A mountain stands, it breathes, it is alive. Perhaps, not in the sense that we are taught to look at it as rock and soil but as part of a cosmos that we still don’t fully comprehend.

Our bodies are said to be a microcosm of the macrocosm and it makes sense from a yogic lens. The elemental nature of the body and mind mimics what is outside of us too. Mountains are usually elder structures, old ascensions into the heavens and have their unique shapes, structures and peculiarities. When stable, they remain standing without any change for years. Their shifts happen with a shift in energies of the earth. Perhaps the imagery of a volcano can represent the flow of energy of its structre, Of course, it is uncontrolled in an eruption but controlled in asana.

Geetaji talks about the adho mukhi and urdhva mukhi nature of energy flows, the downward and upward flow of energy. While I’ve experienced that in different asanas to different degrees, today I found myself studying it from the point of view of a mountain to understand how it works within the confines of my mind and body. While the essence of a mountain remains elevation, there is also the corresponding descent of its outer slopes. If the inner lift happens against gravity, the outer relaxation happens with it.

Tadasana instructions are usually staccato like in their delivery.

Feet together. Suck the knee caps up. Tuck the stomach in, buttocks in. Roll the shoulders behind and down, hand extending downwards. Become tall.

As one progresses in practice, there are nuances added and these can go really deep. The only thing that becomes apparent as I spend more time in this pose is that vast tracts of body and mind remain out of reach. On the outside the asanas are better looking but internally, there are deserts of silence. It’s a slow progression, or perhaps a progressing slowly as physical prowess gives way to a more detached viewing. One of curiosity and experimentation.

One of my teachers used to say if there is only one asana that you can perfect, let it be tadasana and I am beginning to see why. Often, the pose is used as an analogy for the sthirtha or steadiness required in any other asana. Over time, I have seen how arm work brings better leg stability and today was a learning in how the inner arm can bring the quietness of the outer leg. Result was strength and lightness in arms and a grounding so solid of the soles. Tadasana is really a whole body scan.

Home practice has been good but today, I missed my teacher and wished I could hear her clear voice and laughter. I missed helping out in the medical classes, I missed working in the library and I missed the fledgling sense of community I had begun to experience at the institute. While the lock down has been a period of acceptance with a fairly balanced head and heart, the prospect of an extended one has found me yearning for beloved RIMYI. Deeply.

Pictures taken before lock down – the windows in the first image are ones I’ve looked out of many times and the RIMYI library is a favourite place. It’s probably where I’d be headed out to first when we are allowed to move out. 

Master class with Geetaji

In this new world order of physical distancing, a home practice brings more than just a sense of physical well being, it gifts the philosophy of yog as a guide to navigate a new normal. At the moment, the world is practicing social distancing, a self-imposed isolation to check and slow the spread of a pandemic. Time on the mat is also like that, a retreat into the body and mind to check and slow the fluctuations of the vrittis.

WhatsApp Image 2020-03-28 at 14.14.00
Just my trusty old mat and me

Practice at home has mostly been the usual set of asanas with plenty of propping but today was a master class with Geetaji that did not use any props. Seated asanas, seated twists, standing poses and standing twists wrapped up with a Setuband Sarvangasana (this one was propped, 2 bricks for me). It was working with just the foundational Dandasana, Tadasana and Uthita Hasta Padasana but with detailed actions across the entire body. I haven’t used this video in at least a couple of years or more since the knee injury.

The tasting of this lesson was different at many levels. On one hand, there was better understanding of how to interpret and adjust instructions to safeguard my knee and work with my alignment issues. On the other, there was greater access to hitherto inaccessible areas. Perhaps it is greater mobility and strength in the spine thanks to deep backbends that conditioned it. It was also interesting to see how she taught, both in an instructional manner as well as in the form of an invitation to learn independently. Often, one gets instructions not teaching.

As a novice student, I struggled when a neighbourhood teacher would say, bring your front thighs back. Fast forward a few years and one finds that there is a natural progression to working less aggressively and with more compassion. Actions are subtler and have a quality of integration across the planes of the body. Asanas that seemed wildly impossible have effortlessly made their way into a regular practice. Of course, it still is a struggle with Trikonasana but the nature of the struggle has changed. The me from 5 years ago would have imagined today’s Trikonasana to be impossible while today’s me can see how much is still thick and dull. Always a work in progress. If you’re struggling as a new practitioner, I’d only say, show up and do whatever you can, eventually the tree takes root. Like one of my teachers would say, if you can’t do a full practice, just do one Adho Mukha Svanasana for 1 minute everyday.

The highlight today was beloved Tadasana and the incredible lift of the arches and that imprint stayed long after I got off the mat. Some gems that exploded into awareness today were the experience of standing on the metatarsals, the crown of the big toes and the power of the hips to bring steady balance in the Parivritta movements. The nemesis pose was Supta Tadasana, the floor does not lie about unevenness. 🙂

Thanks to technology, Geetaji’s keen knowledge and experience resound much beyond her life and allow us to have a glimpse of the ocean that is yog.

Beloved Tadasana

Class was overflowing today with new students for therapy. It’s very interesting to see how the hall divides after the opening prayers and first asana. There are groups of people with similar conditions and then the oddballs who have a different sequence. I fall in the latter category.

The knee has been feeling better, enough to ask for something besides the asanas I do. I don’t think it’s ready for any bending yet but building some strength, yes. I finally got into a trikonasana, ardha chandrasana and a few other standing asanas. Of course given an open instruction to do standing poses, I reached out to my beloved tadasana, albeit propped. The props made it such a wide open experience. It was a moment of elation at doing the simplest of asanas and finding my feet, literally. The rods continued to keep me company until it was time to let go in ardha halasana. Of course, the voice inside is waiting to see everything that needs to be ‘aligned’ but that’s a while from now.

Finally, there seems to be the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. It would be interesting to go back to the basics with a little memory of how it used to feel. I look at my legs and can see the wasting of the muscles but that can’t be helped. It will still need to wait for a bit before they can be strong again. In the meanwhile, I’m considering an Ayurvedic massage treatment in Kerala. My parents have been under the treatment of a vaidyan there and he is highly recommended. I’m still on the fence when I think of leaving the household during school months.

As I type this, the leg feels like alive. It is spring and this improvement feels like new shoots of green. Cautiously optimistic is still what I remind myself as nature does her thing. I have started to visit a nearby trail once or twice a week for a 10-15 minute slow walk but it’s really just to be barefoot in the open and to watch the birds and feel the sun. I missed feeling the sand and mud, stones and gravel all these days. How do I even begin to say how much it feels like slaking my thirst? This time around I don’t wish to know what works or doesn’t, I’m just grateful for the healing however it happens.

At the risk of sounding like I’m imagining things, I did feel Guruji’s presence very strongly during the Invocation today. It was in my breath and in the steadiness of my closed eyes. Perhaps, staring at his pictures in the hall might have led to the steady and quiet sense as we chanted the few lines.

On a different note, I was at a ceremony yesterday and mentioned to my friend that one of the men there had strong, healthy feet. He also looked very familiar and I kept associating him to RIMYI for some reason and it turned out that he was a student of Iyengar yoga for over 30 years! Small world. He and his colleague were reciting the shlokas beautifully and I was lucky that life gave an opportunity to ask where I could learn the same. Their answer was easy, youtube. 😁There’s no escaping technology and the way we learn and entertain ourselves. Thanks to the digital explosion, I can listen to talks by recent masters. It also allows me to share my thoughts and experiences as I wander on unknown journeys. This is pretty much a space for soliloquy and I write in the hope that someone searching for answers as a beginner finds my journal to have a glimpse of how the journey meanders. It’s a little fellowship of some known and mostly unknown travellers on a solitary road. Thank you all very much for being part of my wanderings.

In gratitude

Body talk?

Recently a dear friend said something about ‘the wisdom that my feet communicated with me’. It got me thinking about the feet and the tattvas- internal radio catching bits of static again. I sense an inside understanding of the interconnectedness of it all but can’t quite hear it clearly. 

Perhaps this period of more gentle movement is meant to start looking at the other more esoteric aspects of yoga. Or, is it being precocious? The little I picked up from my readings is enough to warn against uninformed and unguided exploration. Yet, there is a pull and I find it occupying space in the background. The sounds, the colours, the geometry, the symbolism of the deities etc. in freewheeling thought. No messing around, just keeping my ears and eyes open. 

Asanas are few and mostly supported at home and I’ve been using tadasana with a prop quite a bit. My issue cropped up because of poor biomechanics so going back to the basics seemed like a good idea. It seems to be working or perhaps it is a combination of rest, physio exercises, medication and swimming. I’m partial to the asana since I find instantaneous change for a while after removing the brick. The shape of the knee looks a bit different too. An unexpected bonus has been an effortless chaturanga dandasana! That’s a pose I struggle with and I suppose all the physio stuff has helped with core strength. Taking charge of solving my problems, whether they work or not, has brought some freshness to the limited poses. The others will wait for me when I get back. 

Chakra T shirt

Hari Om

Prithvi, Ap, Tej, Vayu, Akash

The elements in the foot- an interpretation by little K

Much of yog is hidden in plain sight. It’s the mirror that needs cleaning.

As a teen, I was drawn to the  elements and considered myself a pagan. It was an unconscious affinity towards the building blocks of the universe. Little did I know then that I just needed to follow those instincts. It took many turns and twists into confusion before retracing the journey to rediscovery.

There is much to experience and be. Increasingly, I find that asana and japa are tools to master, hone and refine the ability to experience. Most of the time, there is the sense of old knowledge that is lurking just below the surface. Underlying all this is the firm belief that more will be revealed. Until then, “tadasana in all asanas” as our teacher says.

Hari Om

The body as a Mirror

The soles fascinates me endlessly. I know not its anatomy. I know not the names of its intricate structures. Yet, it speaks to me. It reflects how I feel and think. Some times it is sure and steady while at others there is a flightiness. Some times it is doubt and at others it is shaky. Rarely, if ever, is it evenly balanced. There are times my entire practice revolves around tadasana and I still don’t scratch the surface of this foundational pose.

forever in tadasana

Today’s class had our teacher prodding us to see how different parts of the body could be a mirror for actions in other parts. He articulated it in a beautiful way, “The bottom of your foot is a mirror!”.  Perhaps it is barefoot running that has heightened my sense of the soles. They speak quite loudly. There is a kind of auto-correct that happens when running barefoot, it is difficult to run sloppily without shoes. The entire body is alert and it is a light and compact experience. There is communication that happens between the soles and rest of the body as I move. I never felt like that in shoes. Barefoot, there is a lot of respect for the field of experience, it is the ground beneath the feet that commands. Quite similar to our lives when one thinks about it. 

Our situations and capabilities mark the field where we struggle, explore and transform our life patterns. I can’t fight the field but if I work within its limitations, there is the possibility of freedom. 

Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage

Exploring the theme of mirrors, the body reflects the mind and vice versa. As a student, it is a little easier to work with the body and see the changes reflect in the mind rather than the other way around. Moving the legs are more accessible than shifting my thought patterns defined and coloured by Prakriti.

I’ve been drawn to the Tattvas repeatedly of late and it is interesting to see how this system accounts for the universe at large and the individual embodiment. The sheer scale of subjective understanding of the ancient ones is mind boggling and all this was intuitively experienced! That makes me believe it is possible for us to be what we truly are.

Man awakened to the Self’s Glory is God; God forgetful of His own glory is the deluded man!

-Swami Chinmayananda

Hari Om 

A barefoot runner’s yoga 

I was chatting with a fellow practitioner yesterday who wanted to write an Iyengar yoga sequence for runners. In the course of our conversation, he asked about my running. I told him that I had gone completely barefoot and the inevitable ‘why’ popped up. So I said the first thing that came to mind, ‘stronger feet, better asana’.

Ever since I started running barefoot, my standing poses have more grounding and my feet feel healthier. Better arch support, more open soles and greater foot flexibility, etc. I did go through my share of overdoing before finding my feet though😊. 

An old friend who happens to be a long distance runner sent me a book on barefoot running and I used the principles in it to develop a plan to transition slowly and steadily. I guess it has been successful because even a gap of a few days doesn’t impact the feet or ankles. I haven’t really studied the science behind it and have let my feet be my teacher. It has been a very subjective experience of listening and adapting to the body. 

Sometimes I run loops on a ground as that offers a varied surface; it has mud, stones and bugs besides debris. Running there is an exercise in intense awareness and movement while making my feet ready for any and all kinds of surfaces. Each step is new and fresh despite having run there many times. My senses are sharper and I actually see the ants being industrious as I run. The tiny glass shards and bottle caps are like beacons to stay alert if I want to keep my feet intact for another run.

On one of my runs, an elderly gentleman came upto me and said that he appreciated my running barefoot and warned me about the glass. He then asked me why barefoot and proceeded to answer the question himself. In his answers, I found mine. Mostly, I just reply because it feels good and never go beyond that. That wise man said it is taking energy from Mother earth and releasing all your negative energy into the ground. It must make you emotionally more stable and mentally strong. I nodded yes to all of them. It got me thinking a little and one of the reasons I run barefoot is joy. Feeling the ground so directly, so intimately is very rejuvenating and charges me up.

In a perfect world, I would probably go barefoot everywhere but it would be inconsiderate to step into someone’s home or a class with dirty feet. Although, what others consider dirt is actually probably cleaner than what we accumulate in all our hygiene fetish. I used to be obsessive about clean feet and wore slippers at home my entire life. Little did I realise how much I had disconnected myself from myself. Perhaps that is why tadasana is so dear to my heart. As a popular line goes, root to rise. It is really ascending to the fullest potential in oneself.

Running barefoot has taught me many things, a greater respect for all beings, great and small. It teaches me that equanimity is possible in life situations. Everytime I explore a new terrain or route, I am vulnerable and exposed. It is a delicate dance of faith, awareness and humility to be present. Regardless of the chatter in my mind, I take one step and then another and let the rhythm of the feet find the rhythm of my breath. Sort of like being on my mat and discovering something different with every practice. Both the disciplines have fed each other and continue to do so. They both require a dedicated and balanced approach and reveal their secrets slowly as I become ready to receive. One of my dilemmas was ‘running or yoga’ but with barefoot running, I have found a happy balance, atleast for now. 

Today’s class was brilliant. We had a different teacher, a petite soft spoken lady who actually made me experience savasana in trikonasana, eternity in a moment. That is probably an entire post in itself.

Hari Om

Trusty Tadasana

It was uncanny how today’s class was so close to my home practice yesterday. I went through the Week 1 sequence which focuses on tadasana and the basics. When in doubt, it is always trusty old tadasana. A gap in regular practice makes me feel like I have forgotten or lost whatever little I have learnt. At such times, the basic standing asanas have come to the rescue. I find it a good way to take stock.
Class also had the inversions and a brief glimpse into watching the breath. As usual I struggle when it comes to do the pose on the left and today I got helped to go a little beyond. Mental note: explore uthita parsvkonasana.
During the flare-ups of cervical spondylosis, it was almost always my left side and even now there is a little lump that can be seen. It got me thinking that probably that explains why the entire left side including the lower limb is so closed. About 20 years ago, I had surgery on my upper arm for a bone related issue, near the left shoulder and I guess ever since that side has been compromised. Will this side also get that click moment and then release?
Earlier I used to feel the legs working hard in the standing poses, now the inversions seem to work them hard. Actually even the buttocks work hard. Could it be the inversions that are helping the running? My legs definitely feel stronger than before.
Halasana and its variations are tiring on them and I wait for the instruction to come to paschimottansana. But that comes only after the Sarvangasana cycle. And then it’s ah! as the class settles into savasana.
I feel childlike happiness entering the institute, like how I would feel on library day at school. I missed class last week and 2 weeks without a teachers lesson is just too long. My steps in yoga are still very, very mridu, I need the inspiration of the weekly class to keep at it.

In gratitude to the teachers past and present

Diwali, Paris, Guruji’s chest and Tadasana

We had an off last Wednesday as the institute was shut for Diwali. In the scramble to get the house scrubbed clean, finish work before I took a break and shop, my home practice took a beating. I got a few days of short practices and some stretches intermittently during the day but it is not the same as a focused time on the mat. I just feel rusty in the asanas. Try as I may to recollect my teacher’s instructions and repeat it, it just doesn’t feel the same. I don’t sense the movements in the same way and it just feels like I have lost my grounding. So it has been back to basics again. Tadasana and the standing asanas. I can’t wait for class.
In the meanwhile, I have started memorising the second pada of the sutras as I had stopped after learning the first pada. I intend to first memorise the Sutras and then study them. My mother in-law has been teaching the Gita shlokas to kids for many years now and while they don’t understand much, they can recite the stanzas beautifully. I hope to replicate the same pattern of learning.
Festive occasions are a disruptive time in a good way sometimes. I finally got enough time off to thoroughly clean up my house for Diwali. It was a happy feeling to light the many diyas, be with family and friends and partake of the joys of the season. It was a different manifestation of yoga in my day to day life. While asana is the very visible part of it in my life, my challenges lie in the limbs of yama and niyama.
The day before yesterday saw the last of the parties and yesterday was a slow getting back to a regular routine which got off to a shocking start. The news in the morning brought back memories of the terror attacks in Mumbai a few years ago. At that time, I was stuck to the television set, surfing news channels for the latest while in disbelief and horror at the carnage. It seemed unreal and all the media frenzy made for voyeuristic viewing. I couldn’t watch and couldn’t stop watching. It seemed so pointless and heartbreaking but after a while, life limped back to normal. The ones who lost loved ones learned to live with the gaping holes in their hearts and those who watched got a little more jaded. While I may feel horrified and sad, it is not a pinch on the grief of those who lost their dear ones. May they find the courage needed to carry on.
This morning while I was out on a run, I saw an elderly gentleman walking and he had the stooped shoulders common to older folks and I remembered Guruji’s strapping chest even at a ripe old age. I never tire of seeing his pictures at the institute. I hope to grow old like that, open to everything that life brings. Asanas brought me to a practice of more than poses and physical benefits and I wish more people could experience the health that is naturally ours. If so little could give me so much, I cannot imagine the richness of experience with a more aware and conscious practice. While it is nice to see progress in the way the asana looks as time passes, what has been more interesting is the connections between movements in different poses.
Regardless of whether it is Sirsasana or adho mukha virasana, every part of the body has a job in the pose. In yoga age, I’m a baby and just finding my feet in tadasana. There is so much to learn in just standing tall that I could probably spend a lifetime studying it.

“Disciplined freedom”

While driving to class a couple of days ago, I remembered a line I’ve heard and used many times, “Take the body, the mind will follow” and all of a sudden 20 odd years of that line was realized.

Later that night, I was reading Light on the Yog Sutras where Guruji writes, “Asanas act as bridges to unite the body with the mind, and the mind with the soul. They lift the sadhaka from the clutches of afflictions and lead him towards disciplined freedom.” and it seemed like something to consider deeply. The last two words have been food for thought since.

Running is similar to asana practice in that one has to get out and keep at it. Most runs are difficult and in the early days, the discipline of being regular is wrenchingly hard. Breakthroughs are few and far between and it can seem like a pointless endeavour to get out and run. It gets even harder if there is no specific event to train for except to see how far your body can go.

The discipline of getting out regularly trains the body and mind to move until it becomes natural and without too much of a fight. And slowly, one day you realize that there has been a transformation. The struggle of the early days has been replaced with a calm expansiveness. The goal is no longer that important, the journey has become enough in itself.

My mistakes in running have allowed me to embrace my Yog sadhana at its pace. The single most important thing running has taught me is the value of a sound base, a tadasana mastery in all I do.

In gratitude to my teachers.