Learning to learn

​Every time I sit down to write here, I realize the days have slipped away yet again. The last two weeks included some sudden work assignments as well as unexpected family commitments and classes. There was a COVID scare thrown in for good measure too. But all’s well that ends well. Back to classes and even managed to get on top of pending work. Sometimes I feel that I accomplish a lot more when there are multiple balls up in the air.

Fridays in September are special with a limited series of classes by Prashantji. It is pure joy being in that session. He’s got a delightful sense of humour and some of his anecdotes show a very different side of a man considered serious. I’ve been sifting through my memories of my early days at the institute and remembered the wish to study with him. I can’t quite believe how it is a reality today. At the start of this academic year, I had no clue that I would be doing a different set of classes than the ones I opted for. I don’t have the necessary asana proficiency in order to do all that is required in some of those classes. As for Pranayama, that’s barely there either and I feel like I’ve not got all my studying in. But something he said in one of the classes stuck with me. In a nutshell, when the subject is complex, one has to formalize a schema for learning. I’ve yet to articulate it for myself.

That’s been my struggle currently. The last couple of months has been an evolving of different kinds of learning as well as levels of learning. So, I’d struggle with what to practice or focus on. Today, it sort of made sense while I was on the mat. I need to work mostly on the gross asana work at home while absorbing the nuances in class. Allow those learnings to also grow organically, the way asanas grew. I’ve been rereading some of Prashantji’s books and now there is the beginning of a glimpse of the subjective understanding of some of the concepts he speaks about.

This evening was kind of fun actually. The youngling also practised with me (a first). She made funny faces and did a little jiggle in the poses and we burst out laughing. Once she was done, I continued with inversions. Grunt work mostly. Just doing. Perhaps, it might be interesting to explore and document inversions in home practice this month. No goal as such, just explore, do, see, observe. Do without any expectation. Recently, I was reading a transcript of one of Geetaji’s lectures on a Gita Jayanti. She talks about how Ramakrishna Paramhansa summarizes the teaching of the Gita as tagi= tyag or sacrifice. It is really the crux of that beautiful text. Maybe the time is ripe for a re-reading.  

“When I practise, I am a philosopher. When I teach, I am a scientist. When I demonstrate, I am an artist.”, one of Guruji’s oft repeated quotes is brilliant at many levels. If I had to look at it in the way it is arranged, it begins with practice followed by teaching and culminating in art. Philosophy was the original enquiry before it split into the sciences and arts. In another approach, it is the schemata required for different facets of a discipline. And yet, despite three different role assumptions, each is contained in the others. It’s incomparably elegant as a framework for any pursuit.

Word of the year

It has been long since I wrote a blog post. Correction. I wrote many but shifted it into my notes instead. Perhaps, it was a sense of sharing that happened within a physically virtual world rather than reflections broadcast to an invisible world. But when I go back to the reasons for beginning this web notebook, I feel the need to document the ongoing unfolding.

Every year, I have a word. 2021’s word was Guruji. At the beginning of the year, I read a lot about his life, experiences of other people etc. and it was evident that most of them had covered his life from sickly teenager to yogacharya extensively. I thought I could make my own notes and as the year progressed found myself pivoting time and time again to what Prashantji mentions, ‘Iyengar’s yoga’. At year’s end, I see how that word shaped a lot of my everyday living. The word ‘Guruji’ became my reference point of responses to life situations.

2021 continued to be a pandemic year and one of many unexpected changes in my personal life. There was travel, closures and new beginnings and an overall ease even in stressful situations. If there has to be one significant discovery, it was that I found how to make time elastic. I have my teachers to thank for this change. Asanas are wonderful props to make acquaintance with oneself. I learned to stay in uncomfortable situations and watch thoughts and emotions rise and respond with ease. There was space for decisions to be made without reacting. This was possible as the ‘softness and firmness’ one of my teachers speaks about seeped into my day off the mat. And that translated to being able to make time.

One of the lovely things that happened to me through the year was the opportunity to demonstrate for one of the teachers in the online classes for beginners. These twice-a-week sessions have been such an immersion. Without fail, I log in 20 minutes before to set up and chat with P. She is a generous teacher, loved to bits by all her students. The regulars show up class after class and in the odd moments that I see them do their asanas, I see how there is joy, vigour and eagerness. I’ve loved beginner classes all along and participating in one like this has been a gift.

It was a full year of online classes and through the course of the months, I found myself at ease in asanas I had never attempted before while I lost some asanas to physical conditions. Both were simply observations. This freedom happened as I learned to soften the belly and brain. I got glimpses of the vast spaces inside as well as the darkness that exists in much of my body and mind. I was able to experience the energy that my teachers spoke about. I received glimpses of the touch of breath in pranayama. It remains very much a rudimentary learning of the alphabet. But, it is progress nevertheless and endlessly fascinating.

One of the unexpected gifts of 2021- Niño who came into our lives one November evening.

Over the years, I see how it appears that this system is all about sequence, asanas as solutions to problems, precision etc. but that is missing the forest for the trees. As the pandemic continues, I see how Iyengar yoga is many fruits, many fruitings according to the inherent tendencies of its practitioners and teachers. As for me, I remain a devoted student of the subject but find that perhaps calling it Iyengar yoga is limiting. It is yog, as Guruji says. Staying with his thought and reading about him, his works, listening to his family and students through the year that passed taught me patience. In situations of distress or doubt, it was easier to pause and consider how he may have made his choices. More often than not, the answer sprung from Sutra 1.33, one of my favourites.

Despite the pandemic making life more virtual, mine became less so. The first year of pandemic saw a lot of connection via technology while the second one saw more time spent in the company of trees and a few people. I am grateful to have this space to share and receive even if it has been an erratic presence. It’s been about 7 years since the beginning of this blog and in some sense, it is probably no longer a space that answers some of the questions that I had as a beginner. But, it remains a space to put markers like a reminder that the word for this year is ‘slow’.

Flying shoulder stands and some thoughts

Today’s penultimate pose was a sarvangasana, the lightest, tallest one I have ever inhabited. Our teacher said, fly with your trapezius and we flew. All the ‘shoulder surgery‘ we did in class today made for a sarvangasana that was as wide as it was tall, the trunk felt like an open book. The arms and shoulder promise to make their presence known later but that is sweet pain.

I feel a little out of my depth in the Intermediate class, many of the asanas are a challenge mostly because of the knee. The holds are longer in this class and I still have to attain some strength and endurance. I fall over sometimes and come up sooner. The old tendency to find fault is there but there is a little more patience. It is also fascinating to see how much the body can actually move. In one of the parsva salabhasana variations, my teacher came and pulled my arm so easily and had it cross my back. I struggled with moving it and she made it so long. We have far more in us than we think we have, like in running. This asana learning is an energizing one, continuous and fresh everyday. I attend 2 classes- beginners and intermediate. The experience is so different, one assures that there is some proficiency and the other reminds you that you’re a long ways off. It’s a continuum of being student.

Life off the mat has a different quality now. More clarity, more humour and more acceptance. The inevitable conclusion is joy. Sometimes I wonder if it is a phase, this almost euphoric sense of well-being despite the challenges of living. But, it doesn’t seem that way. Not for now atleast. My eyes are wide open and so is my heart. Setbacks are temporary and experienced in the present and then sent their way.

Yoga and running, both were never quite about the body or fitness for me. Even now, with the struggle of the body, it is really about facing myself, fears, flaws, strengths, potential and being able to see them and know that they have their place. It is about being able to fall flat on my face and being able to laugh about it. I used to take myself too seriously, still do but it’s easier to be around people now. I’ve made new friends and feel like part of the community at the institute.

Evening therapy class was interesting. Raya broke down assisting handstands and rope work. It was interesting to see how each person processed the lessons. Although Iyengar yoga appears to be regimented and rigid in sequencing, I’ve had firsthand experience of not following any of the conventional rules when my teachers would work on me. It is like classical Indian music, once there is a certain maturity, the rules can be bent to suit a conscious purpose. The lovely performances are often improvised but this is mastery level and beyond.

As for me, I found myself wondering what right do I have looking at this when I can’t yet do a handstand by myself. I’m probably the only one in all the helpers/ observers/ teachers who cannot do what I guess are basic requirements for someone to be assisting. Anyways, I listen and observe, knowing that I might not retain much but believe that all that wisdom will come back when I am ready. In the meanwhile, I help where required and that takes me out of my doubt and questioning for that period.

How many Trikonasanas?

This morning, I wanted to go to the hall to practice but decided to practise at home instead. I live a fair distance away from the institute and travel to and fro easily takes 2 hours. Hopefully, I can go tomorrow. Anyways, I didn’t quite have a plan until a few minutes on the mat.

It was a different approach to basic standing poses, unknowingly entered into. Arm work to sensitize the back which in turn fed the arms and resulted in a long Trikonasana, long Ardha Chandrasana and long forward bends. Sometimes I record myself to see how it looks from the outside and today it surprised me. Internally, all I am focused on is the effort while externally it is about the outcome. And a few years of practice does have outcomes. I was reasonably satisfied with the expression of the pose.

This awareness of having a little knowledge has been a surprise not just in asana but also in other aspects. Recently, I went on a tree walk and a birding session and in both instances, figured out that I was probably not a novice. Amateur yes, but not completely raw. This identity is a new one to inhabit. It reiterated what my teacher said about all of us always learning. That doesn’t mean that we haven’t learnt anything yet. It’s probably not such an issue for most people and I wonder at how easily people accept their proficiency. I doubt. A lot. But perhaps, this is a better way to keep the mind open to continue to learn.

Back to the asanas, since there wasn’t too much of a focus except the arm and back to aid the pose, I played with increasing the difficulty of the pose by taking a brick for the upper hand, reducing the turn of the back leg and so on while keeping the attention on the back. Basically, exploring the capacity of the body to obey, extend and push to the brink just to the point where a new baseline will be set. One of my challenges is to reduce the turn of the back leg in parsvottanasana, virabhadrasana 1 etc. Today, there was joy in getting the hand to the floor while maintaining the integrity of Trikonasana, as well as achieving a small reduction in the turn of that back leg. Like that song, how many Trikonasanas must a sadhaka practise before it is an effortless one?🙂

Edit: Post typing the above section, I ended up picking The Tree of Yoga to read and the page opened to the chapter on Effort, Awareness and Joy. The Guru always appears.


In gratitude

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.

Biochemistry of asanas

Today was a stark contrast to class the day before. There was lightness and space in the body and breath. None of the cringing into collapse but instead an openness and curiosity to explore the asanas prescribed. Truly, the body is an incredible instrument, it holds memory both short-term and long-term. I had the leeway to play with a few asanas by myself and it felt possible to go back to being a student.

Last class saw me beaten and at an extremely low point. Somehow telling my teacher that it was fear that was surfacing helped me walk through it. I was in a situation where I relived terrors I wouldn’t let myself feel years ago and was feeling trapped yet again. She made me confront that repeatedly, dropping into the unknown with the promise of holding me or else falling with me and laughing about it. It is strenuous work for the teachers, the weight of not just the bodies of the students but also their inner heaviness.

Something shifted inside in that last class, not just in the heart but in the head too, breaking an old pattern. I could find my voice and be vulnerable in the face of that fear. An old response pattern was broken in the world outside the mat. Perhaps the asanas changed the biochemistry of my psyche, rewiring and rewriting old narratives making it possible to change the course of the future.

Between my two teachers, I am pulled and pushed into spaces I can’t reach. I don’t understand any of it but trust blindly. At times, my senses experience the various movements and even rest. Today, a savasana happened spontaneously after a very long while.

Perhaps someday I can spend my days soaked in yoga at the institute. Maybe I can give back in some little way for all that I have been so freely and unconditionally given.

In gratitude

A day of learning

I had a last minute trip that came up this morning. A cab had been arranged and I had a lovely 45 minute ride listening to one of the wisest persons I have met in recent times.

An unassuming man, he has been a driver for 42 years, doing almost daily runs on the Mumbai-Pune highway, first as a trucker and then a taxi driver. The road was his teacher. His words, not mine. “Even people who don’t talk teach me much.”

Once a month, he and his wife go someplace, usually to a temple somewhere out of town and come back recharged. He has a guru in his village who he holds in high respect. He reminded me of Nisargadatta Maharaj, a common man who was an enlightened soul. This man is a warkari, he used to do the annual pilgrimage for many years and listened to stories from fellow travellers. Stories about ancient sages and enlightened masters. One of the things he was told as a young man was to undertake pilgrimages while health still permitted so that he wouldn’t need to burden another.

We spoke through the rear view mirror, his deep set eyes a pool of calm radiance. He’s driven many business leaders, politicians and had much knowledge about human nature, different kinds of businesses and nothing to lose. A karma yogi of the finest mettle. A completely irrelevant tidbit but fascinating piece of information was that the colourful tutti-frutti was made of papaya!

One of the interesting things I have observed in my life is how reflective mornings fade into an intellectual workday. I saw it happening with him as well as we moved from a dialogue on matters related to the spirit to a conversation on sundry life matters. His mastery was his car, personally cared for and maintained. Through the years, his knowledge and expertise deepened with the exposure to different vehicles. As he rightly observed, no one can be a master of all. You need to really be with the subject you have chosen. His happiness with his role in life was a deep contentment, reflected in the excellent condition of his vehicle and driving skills.

We spoke on a wide range of topics from the recent political events to family and work, business and learning. He made some astute observations and was up to speed in terms of infrastructure development all by virtue of his job. I was happy to just ask questions and he obliged easily.

The sense I received from his absolute assuredness was a detachment of the sort I haven’t encountered in person. He played the roles he had been given with no expectations and clarity of purpose. An active life of service without attachment. I found myself humbled and privileged to have made his acquaintance.

Hari Om is how he greets anyone so much so that many call him by that name. I’m just grateful to have had the wisdom of his words.

The day opened into another interesting exploration about menstruation with two unlikely people, a retired brilliant business head for a worldwide brand and a younger second generation engineer. Both men, with none of the usual avoidance of anything to do with periods and a great deal of openness to understand what it means to be female and bleeding.

In a matter of 12 hours, I had a yoga lesson from an unlikely teacher, lessons in business and a heart fill of love in the presence of my firstborn. I couldn’t have asked for more.

One of the beautiful juxtapositions of religion and business. A temple in a tree in the compound of an old business complex.

Da… da… da…

image
currently reading

Excepting a few books in the image, most of the others have been on my shelves for a few years, including a couple of the yoga books. I’ve read them, left them alone and come back to them again and again. The first reading would always be a mad devouring, wanting to greedily lap everything the pages held. Subsequent readings were usually piecemeal, sometimes a line or two, sometimes a page, sometimes 20. Every single time, the words have revealed something new, more a little uncovering rather than discovery.
I’ve been graced with a sense of deep gratitude as I practise living in accordance with the principles of Yog to the best of my ability. Perhaps this fervent belief has led to a different response to whatever I read. The response is less intellectual and more devotional, although it seems strange to use the word in connection with myself.
Sometimes a commentary on one of the Sutras prods me to pick up The Gita. This in turn pushes me to open the translation of the Upanishads.  At times something reminds me of a line I read a while ago and I go searching for it. Yet other times, it is getting carried a way with the Puranas and the epics as they paint the gamut of human and divine life. There is literature available to satisfy every kind of reader. The sheer range is staggering.
The project to memorise the Yog Sutras resulted in a certain familiarity with Sanskrit words. It has brought in its wake a new slow savouring of the timeless texts in this studentship. Today’s trigger was a brainstorming session with a friend as we explored the concept of zero waste. It reminded me of the lines from ‘The Wasteland’ and what could I do but hear what the Thunder said…

Hari Om