The Joy of Practice

Months with 5 weeks have an extra serving of inversions and this evening’s class was an Adho Mukha Vrikshasana spread! There are many videos and instructions on handstands available online but the solidity of a live session is something else. As I kept doing multiple attempts, it felt like I was back in the big hall. At the end of class, my clothes were drenched and my heart was joyful. My teacher corrected quite a few mistakes and now I have some areas to work with. She has seen me from my very first year and being in her gaze makes a big difference. It is satisfying to push through habits/ conditionings.

Adho Mukha Vrikshasana is a good mirror to see oneself. While there is the physicality of the pose, what is also inherent is one’s approach to the asana. As I reflect on my journey into the pose, I see how my fears came from different areas. There was the knee, the arms, wrists etc. which needed time to be able to come this far. Jumpings were not possible with a bad knee but they are a part of my practice now. I’m able to do them without pain and there is confidence in landing. My arms are skinny and every time I stood on my hands, I would imagine them breaking like dry twigs. That visual image is no longer there. The arms still look like sticks 🙂 but I’m stronger. 

An older picture but this is still where I am, using a passageway to get into the pose.

It is not quite about the pose but the journey towards it that is fascinating for me. It is all the little bits and pieces of experience that one gathers along the way that shape the arrival at one’s destination. Like the LEGO blocks my younger one would play with. Make, break, remake, reimagine, make. This year, I’ve gone into poses I’ve never attempted before with ease simply because of a stubbornness in honing the actions in basic asanas. But sometimes, classes like this are a joy. The sheer exuberance of sweat and effort and will. Sweat cleanses in more ways than one. Effort keeps one grounded in one’s chosen field of study. It strips one of everything but the bare essentials. It shows up one’s own capacities and limitations, allows for respecting and challenging them respectively. But the tempering of discrimination is the key. And will is the backbone.

Life has a good rhythm with yoga being the fulcrum of my days. When I look back at my journey with RIMYI right from the first year of being an eager beaver to feeling out of my depth in intermediate classes to medical sessions for nearly two years followed by the most painful and transformational 3 months, I see a meandering road. Those days were followed by helping around in medical classes and getting back to regular beginner and intermediate classes before a pandemic struck. The online format last year allowed multiple classes and I also began learning pranayama. This academic year, there have been 2 additional sessions as a demonstrator which feels a little more intense than the others since I feel conscious of having to stay steady in the pose. I hope to continue with this sense of stability and contentment. Sthira Sukham Asanam is not only on the mat.

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.

Applied Science

स्थिरसुखमासनम् ।४६।
sthira sukham āsanam is one of the commonly quoted sutras that talk about asana. Sthirtha and sukham have many shades of meaning and while it is easier to see it in the context of asana, I also see how difficult it is to apply it to life off the mat. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is a gift of grace to be able to have these twin states in all life’s moments.

All three words are part of the Malayalam vocabulary too and it lends a flavour to learning Sanskrit. There is a background of context as I explore the language of the ancient texts. Sthirtha in my mother tongue also means firm or steady and sukham means a sense of wellbeing, comfort (for lack of a more accurate  translation) and asanam means seat.
Freewheeling on this crisp Sutra, I think about Yog being an essential oneness which allows me to be rooted firmly like a tree or mountain. Perhaps that is why we begin with tadasana… The steadiness of equanimity in being where one is, a state of openness which witnesses without discrimination, acting without attachment. Difficult situations are a good opportunity to see how Yoga can be applied, less as a solution and more as a natural state of being. Easier said than done, like all other practices, this attitude too is one that needs patient cultivation. I feel sthirtha before sukham is also indicative of the progression required to experience sāmyatā.

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The Song on the battlefield

As Lord Krishna sings of the man of steady wisdom in the Chapter on ‘Sankhya Yoga’,
यः सर्वत्रानभिस्नेहस्तत्तत्पाप्य शुभाशुभम्।
नाभिनन्दति न द्वेष्टि तस्य प्रज्ञा प्रतिष्ठिता ।।५७।।

प्रयत्नशैथिल्यानन्तसमापत्तिभ्याम् ।४७।
follows the earlier sutra and clarifies the state of sthiram and sukham where the effort becomes effortless. In everyday living, it is a promise of a new way of acting rather than reacting being the new base without effort, a ‘growing balance in ourselves’ as Swami Chinmayananda puts it.

Asana practice surprises me when I encounter an ease at times. I expect effort to move further and find little resistance which makes me wonder if I am underdoing an action. Last evening it struck me that regular effort has led to a slightly greater range of movement and it is perhaps time to start exploring the actions beyond a muscular level. Start paying attention to all those sensations and experiences that I consciously do not try to understand even as they occur. Maybe I don’t need to be fixed in assuming a certain time has to elapse before I am eligible to receive the blessings of the eternal teachers.

Hari Om

Aparigraha

अपरिग्रहस्थैर्ये जन्मकथंतासंबोधः ।३९।
Sutra 2:39- Knowledge of past and future lives unfold when one is free from greed for possessions.
Translation by B.K.S. Iyengar in ‘Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’

I miss my teacher already. There’s just one class left to go and the academic year will be over. It seems just like yesterday that I was nervous and excited about starting out. So much has changed in the last 11 months! There is an easy familiarity with the Institute now and a sense of comfort in the hall and premises. The folks who help out there are always happy to say hello and we exchange a few words every time we meet.
I have signed up for two classes a week beginning June and wonder who my teachers will be. I hope I get my teacher again but it is a want, an attachment, a greed. Much as my head tells me that I will get who I need, my mind wants different. It throws a silent tantrum, “I want my teacher”.
I didn’t get my preferred timings as those classes were sold out in no time, within half an hour, someone mentioned. So I took whatever I could get. It’s going to be a year of jugglery as I manage to squeeze work and home between 2 odd batch timings. The interesting thing is I got one women’s intermediate class so that should be a different experience. Will it be any easier? I doubt.
The last class was a welcome surprise, we did restorative asanas and began with a favourite, Supta Virasana. Some nights I do it before sleeping, on the bed itself and wake up with the lightest legs the next morning. I’ve fallen asleep in it too and woken up when the legs went to sleep.
It is a pose not easily accessible to a lot of people and we learnt how to use props for different problems. The ‘Royal’ Supta Virasana was reserved for an elderly gentleman in our class who had some trouble. He looked so relaxed propped on all those bolsters and pillows. We learnt the adjustments for the knees, ankles, back, head etc. and spent a fair bit of time in it. My current struggle in the pose is feeling the evenness in both the buttocks and a stiffness in the front of the left foot. The thigh also takes its while to settle into a calmness. It is very interesting how small areas are unlocked to work on and once there is a little familiarity with that part, another one needs attention. It’s like building the asana in parts and then one fine day putting it all together to make a fully integrated structure. These are just asana adjustments at the grossest level and it will be a while before it can penetrate the outermost kosha and gives me a glimpse of the depth available. I could study my entire lifetime and learn something new every time!
Japa practice is just sitting and chanting everyday but something is changing. I now read a  very short commentary on it before sitting in the morning and take up one or two words to ruminate. Commentaries are a helpful way of soaking in the ancient language and learning the way to study. While having a Guru would be ideal, it is very much possible to start with whatever is at hand. A good book is a good teacher indeed.
During japa, my mind wanders and I notice, it wanders again and I notice again and the cycles are completed. But now it is not frustration, it is learning to stay and call the mind back, like repeatedly telling my kids to tidy up. Another change is the ability to sit without dropping for a while. Repetition is abhyasa and being regular somehow makes things accessible. The mind can be made an ally but it needs the gentle discipline of regular, everyday action come what may.

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One of the many statues at RIMYI

Tomorrow is Hanuman Jayanti and the Institute has organized a program. It is always something to look forward to, old timers sharing the memories about Guruji and what they have learnt.

“Buttocks in”

‘Buttocks in’ is a common instruction in class and as soon as it is uttered, there is a collective change in stance.
Wednesday’s class saw us being introduced to backbends and it was kind of off limits to me. I got a little modification and didn’t push beyond the point when the pain would shoot. It would get aggravated if the tailbone was not tucked in. I’m actually grateful for the injury which showed me something new.
Another discovery was not being bothered about what I could not do now but seeing what was available. I’m convinced that doing even just the starting asana of the different categories is more than sufficient to fully engage myself. Some of the asanas I have been doing to ease the back are opportunities to notice and figure out the imbalances. Seated, it is less tiring but no less demanding.
While on holiday recently, my knees were very happy and the reason for that was very simple. I mostly sat cross-legged on the ground or while travelling in the car. Back at work for a few days again and I felt the difference between sitting on a chair and on the ground. Luckily, I work at a place where I can sit on the floor and ditch my footwear. My work requires me to study and understand fruits and vegetables. In the course of reading and research, I find ways to improve how I feed myself and my family. At the risk of sounding too hippy, I also find myself gravitating towards lighter living, needing less. Increasingly, I find that things in my life are intertwined and conducive to living simply.
Sutra reading was mostly restricted to the first two padas since there is a certain comfort with the familiar words. The third and the fourth padas seem way over my head and so I stayed away until a few days ago when the pages beckoned. And it was a startling discovery. Time to get started on memorising the remaining chapters and get familiar with the words. I saw a flyer on Prashantji’s book, ‘Discourses on Yog’ and have been contemplating whether I should get it or just stick to what I have. I keep thinking that I need a basic proficiency in asana before I am ‘qualified’ to explore the other facets of Yog but perhaps that is a fallacy. I see the wholeness of the petals of yoga as a continuum as well as a progression.
Recently, I wrote about what goes through my head when I run and much later it struck me that I had slowed down in my mind chatter enough to catch those fleeting thoughts. This is change in my books and it happened while I was not looking. The only thing I actually did was show up on my mat and practise whatever I learnt. The rest has been revealed as and when I was ready.

Hari Om

Dharma kshetre kurukshetre..

While on holiday, I managed just one day of a full sequence. The other days, I sat in swastikasana or virasana and a little bit of Supta Padangushtasana on the bed. I missed a regular practise but asana found me in different ways. In my reading, I was on a loop of Sutras 1.34- 1.39. My takeaway- the organic nature of the limbs of yoga.
Most of the time, I was simply there being in the moment, feeling the earth under my feet. We stayed in a guesthouse in the forest and it was very easy to fall into the rhythm of the place. There was a lot of walking, mostly barefoot, running (shoe shod) and listening with my senses. The paths were beautiful, red earth dotted with the scent of eucalyptus and the sounds of scurrying creatures (mongooses, squirrels), the constantly changing surface of the trails (packed earth, sandy stretches, stony and gravelly sections, wide paths and narrow tracks). The air was crisp and clean and carried the sounds of music and birds. I had the pleasure of running a half marathon there which did a loop of the entire settlement and it was a joyful experience. My husband got a few pictures and a couple of video clips while I was running and it was quite interesting to see myself. At the end of the run, with about 300m to go, my form was still pretty good and relaxed. Of course, there are a lot of things I still need to work on but it reinforced the value of working on the essentials rather than focusing on a result of timing or pace. It was flattering to get a, “you run really well” from a seasoned runner I shared a few miles with.

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Running solo

Usually, I would look forward to coming home after a break and getting back into my routine but this time I guess I have left a little bit of my heart in Auroville. I would like to live there, one with the earth, working with my hands and needing very little. My little girl was in her element too, it was like going back to her old school. She used to study in a school that was in a village when we moved to Pune. They would sit on the floor in class, walked and played barefoot and ate simple village meals for lunch. More than both of us, it is the husband who is considering moving there! But for now, our dharma kshetra is here and now.