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.

Bricked

The last six weeks have been intense with classes five days a week. It’s been a soaking in and while the greedy student in me wants to continue, I think it’s best to scale down from next month. I’d like to accumulate less learning and experience and explore more instead. It feels a bit lazy to depend so much on online classes rather than struggle a bit on my own. Of course, I need and want my teachers but I could do with more self practice.

Bricked!
Today’s class had multiple repetitions of brick setuband sarvangasana and variations. By the end of the 90 minutes, there was a fire lit in the sacral region, not in a sore way but in an alive sense. Sirsasana and sarvangasana that came towards the end of class was beautiful in its steadiness thanks to that imprint of the brick. The bio mechanics of asanas also means freedom in the corresponding frontal body and I was left with a feeling of fearless vulnerability. The eyes too experienced something different today unlike the usual 1000 watt going off in the head. It is difficult to articulate the sensations, a cradling of the lower part of the eyes would be somewhat close.

The brick was a wonderful teacher, it’s constant pricking never letting me forget what our teacher wanted us to experience. Like she said, one part is about doing the asana and the other is feeling the asana. Range, endurance, flexibility all of that comes slowly or fast. It may come and go depending on illness, injury or other conditions but the feeling of the asana can be replicated using props. In this online format and with fewer props, we often substitute the usual ones with items at home like pressure cookers, stools, pillows, dupattas, sarees, sheets, steel dabbas, dining tables, chairs, sofas, beds, walls etc. It reminds me of Guruji’s early days and how his curiosity made him play with easily available materials to teach himself.

He was a brilliant student, curious and tenacious. As a student, there is much to learn from the way he learned. He listened, he observed, he experimented. There wasn’t any sense of an end goal to be achieved, rather it was more an immersion in the endlessness of yoga. I doubt I’d ever have even a fraction of that zeal and commitment, at best I could possibly expect to plod along in fits and starts. As I reflect on today’s class, I find myself asking yet again- why do I practise yoga, what is the fascination with asana that makes me go back time and time again? There is the mental clarity, emotional stability, physical well-being but I suppose it is also a being alive in this embodiment fully and without limitations. Somehow yoga has never been about getting something in return for time on the mat, the fulfillment has been in the endeavours.

 

Joy in Asana

Most mornings begin really early as I attend class at 6 am thrice a week. It’s a good start to the day and I find that despite the online format, they are still quite tough. Partly, because we spend a lot of time in the intermediate stages of the asanas, work with the body in pieces and also that Intermediate 1 and 2 batches are together. So, it’s a little more demanding that a regular Intermediate 1 class. Additionally, it’s less than a year of a normal class for me. Although there is better range in the knee and the leg feels stronger, I do have limitations. But it is significantly better than what it used to be. Overall, the body feels aligned and the thickness in the right quadriceps no longer appears even when the class is intense. Virasana has slowly started to make short appearances. Maybe, I’ve also learned how to adjust the effort in both limbs differently?

I look at my knees and see how they are better placed. During the days when I used to be belted up and in passive poses, it seemed like nothing would ever change. I would lie on the floor and just watch other bodies or the pictures of Guruji on the walls and wonder if the knees could really be fixed. The rods and bricks and belts would prick the body but I found comfort in their unrelenting hardness. They worked silently but surely. Now, when I see the legs, it is almost like I’ve been sculpted a new pair! They stand straighter and the dent in the outer knee has reduced. I expected to be pain free with yoga but wasn’t really expecting structural changes of this magnitude. I thought it was too late for my body to be realigned. But, this first-hand experience tells me that change is possible, perhaps at any age. The degree may vary but it is possible. The body truly is a remarkable piece of engineering and we don’t quite understand all its mysteries. I’m not sure how one might measure these changes in the manner of scientific experiments but experientially, one can feel it.

Thanks to stronger legs, I am once again able to walk long and far, enjoying the goodness of nature.

We’re back to another severe lock down in Pune as the cases have spiked. Thankfully, class continues online and it is good to be able to continue learning from our teachers. The remote nature of this kind of learning is good as it forces me to work differently. Pause when the body needs, modify as I have to as well as push when there is scope to move further. It is no less intense even though we work with fewer asanas and the more basic ones. I see the skillfulness of the teaching as instructions are adjusted to account for different spaces and provide ample opportunity to explore household items as props. But mostly, we work with the body, the very first prop as Guruji would say. As the days pass, it feels as though new regions in the body are getting awake. I learn to isolate smaller sections and feel life in them. It is hard work and some days the body is tired. But, once that touch of life happens, it becomes internalized.

I find myself asking how does the learning get internalized? Many of the actions have corrected themselves, they are not automatic but the pose is assumed with consideration without really having to think too hard. Almost as though the pose name fluidly positions the body parts. Like the angular back foot or rotation of the hip in parsvottanasana. It used to be a struggle to adjust that but now the leg assumes the position as though unconsciously but at the same time there is an awareness of the space and shape it occupies. The last week has been many such lessons, discovering largish areas like the trifecta of glutes, hips and hamstrings as well as more focused ones like the armpit region or the tailbone. It is a fabulous example of masterful teaching that the teachers can make us students experience the in-habitation of all these different locations.

For a while, I had lost the wonder in the experience of asana and I am glad that it is once again joyful in its toil, in its learning. If anyone reading this is in a spot where they find it difficult to practise in the current pandemic, all I can say is that it is alright if you are unable to do anything. Asana comes back. I lost everything for a long while but then yoga found me again. Stay in touch in whatever way possible, maybe it’s listening to a talk, maybe it is attending an online class or reading the literature or perhaps talking with a yoga friend. Sometimes, we just need to ride the storm and eventually the ground stabilizes under our feet.

In gratitude

Practitioner vs. Sadhaka

It’s been a month since I’ve been attending virtual classes and they’ve settled into a nice rhythm, providing an anchor to the week. It has the rigour of a physical class but with a little extra caution since each of us students have to be responsible for our own safety in the confines of our homes. I’m glad this avenue exists to continue learning but I also miss many things about a regular class.

I miss the hard wooden props like the Vipareeta Dandasana bench, the trestle as well as the ceiling ropes, grills and the like. I miss the callouses on my palms from the ropes. I miss the call and response of the invocation, there is an energy to the whole class reciting together which is absent in this format. I miss the silence and air in the large hall during practice, the noise of props being moved during therapy class and most of all the hands on assistance that would often teach in leaps. Perhaps, not very yoga worthy to miss things but it is how I feel. RIMYI is home.

Studying like this has been a more introspective and slower way of practice for me. I find myself working with breaking down asana actions into regions, currently it is the upper back. There is hesitation in some of the inversions and back bends, the easy familiarity with them has become distant with a summer practice of less energetic poses. This morning, it was like playing lego with lots of books and a few bricks to find that upper back action and some back bends. It’s so easy to slide but the body also remembers and comes back with a little nudging. Despite the rustiness, I see a natural progression.

Last week one of the classes had some prep work for pranayama and I found heaviness and resistance. I asked my teacher about it later and he recommended using the support of a prop. So, I played with bricks, bolsters, a combination of bolsters and blankets and found that bricks work best for me now, maybe something else will later. It was the same earlier too, the hard wooden props reassure me more than the softness of bolsters. Maybe it is a preference for the edge of a little discomfort?

Lately, I’ve been re-reading the Core of the Yoga Sutras, it’s a beautifully nuanced rendering of the Yoga Sutras in an interlinked manner. Yesterday, I was reading the chapter on Sadhana Krama – Method of Practice.

The second sentence, ‘Sadhaka must be a skilled and accomplished practitioner of sadhana’, made me pause and think about the name of this blog, anonymous sadhaka and how it is not entirely appropriate if I had to follow the definition! Practitioner would be more like it.

Guruji speaks about four aspects of Sadhanaśodhana, śosana, śobhana, śamana and ties it in with Sadhana Kriya of Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishwara Pranidhana culminating in bhakti.

Sadhana demands an investigating and examining mind if the action is to purify (śodhana). Dessication and absorption (śosana) are needed to remove the body’s defects and for an auspicious presentation (śobhana). When the effortful efforts transform into an effortlessness state then one experiences the calm and soothing state of śamana.

These are juxtaposed with the kosas and nature of sadhana as bahiranga, antaranga and antaratman. Therein I find the beauty of these texts, layers upon layers, at once a progression and a composite. Finally, he ties up the chapter by enumerating the pillars of sadhana – Sraddha, Virya, Smrti, Samadhi Prajna in Sutra 1.20 – Practice must be pursued with trust, confidence, vigour, keen memory and power of absorption to break this spiritual complacency.

Last week, I was invited to be part of an event that was celebrating the achievements of that organization. It got me thinking about how different it is from asana practice. there are no annual celebrations or milestone markers. Sometimes there is thrill of getting into a pose that was unattainable earlier but it is momentary and there is no specific outcome save the process. Again, I found myself asking myself, why do I practice? It is for the sake of practice, I never know what the mat brings me, both while on it and after.

Having limited work has meant more time for asana practice and plenty of outdoors, especially long ambles in the woods. The world outside continues to burn in more ways than one- environmental disasters, natural calamities and human cruelty alongside a pandemic that continues to run its course. Life is uncertain, always has been just that this time around it has been a collective experiencing of the same. At some point, this page will turn and it may be for the better or worse, it is hard to say considering how much we’ve battered ourselves as a species as well as the planet we call home. All that we have is the number of breaths we will take here and maybe that can be in the spirit of an offering.

In gratitude for the blessings of yoga

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Asana practice is a bit like playing with lego. Build, unbuild, rebuild. Repeat.

A continuum of service

Every Friday that I enter the hall, I wonder whether I have any business being there. I sit at the back not knowing what I should do when my name gets called. The next thing I know it is time to pack up. If the 100 odd minutes would fly earlier when I was at the receiving end of yoga therapy, now they are over in a blink.

It’s a different experience to help people with props, I’ve always been a recipient of that help and don’t know if I should do anything lest I do harm. But my teacher asks me to hold or pull or push and I do so a little self consciously. The actions though are those I have watched countless times just that seeing and doing are two different things.

The knee group needed assistance with rods and belts which that was both familiar and strange. My hands know with the shape of my knees and fixing the props for other knees allowed me an opportunity to get a sense of different textures of skin and structure. It’s almost as if skin reflects emotions.

IMG_20191025_153156.jpg

I worked with a few different people and the overwhelming sense I got was of emptiness. Most people, including myself, don’t inhabit their bodies. There is silence, a thick dark silence. By the end of a session or practice, there is a feeling of presence, as though one has been bathed in energy and the lights have been turned on. That’s a feeling I’ve experienced and I saw that in the face and bodies of others while being next to them. Therapy is more than just adjusting the body, it requires empathy and humour which the teachers bring.

At the end of that class, some of the people I helped came up to me and thanked me. While I was a little embarrassed, it was also a familiar emotion. I would feel the same way about those who helped me. We are a continuum in service.

Yoga Magic

Something shifted very viscerally last weekend and as the week progressed, it felt like a more solid change. The last couple of months have been mostly about tears and shakiness but this week was of a change in perspective. Almost all the asanas I have been given over the last few weeks have been either sirsasana, backbends on all kinds of props and free standing and some cooling inversions at the end. In all these asanas, the world view is changed, a different outlook when compared to standing on one’s feet.

Last Saturday, I was devastated. My world crumbled so totally that I was an animal in pain. Deep, guttural pain. The preceding week, I took off for a few days, incapable of going to class or even doing anything. I was trapped then in fear and the situation was an almost impossible one. The only recourse seemed a time out. I came back to find my world upended. Even as I felt my being completely ripped, something clicked inside. I decided that I would bleed my heart that day only and no more, except if it came out in class.

Sunday was spent in cleaning the house inside out until it was night and I was exhausted.

Monday was tentative and before my asanas, I spoke with my teacher for a long while. It was good to speak with someone as I was in silence for a few days. It was mostly supported and gentler backbends. As I drove back from class, a thought came to my mind that was a radical change from my usual thought. A different perspective, if you will.

Tuesday was a tottering day in the company of colleagues who chattered no end while I kept to myself. But, the shift in perspective that I experienced after class on Monday got stronger.

Wednesday was supported deep backbends, poses where it felt like I was ironed back into lettting go. The body started to feel different and it felt as though I could stand.

Yesterday I could practise by myself and felt a tiny sense of studentship after so very long.

Today’s backbends made me feel atleast 6 inches longer, so much so my teacher remarked, “who is this person?”

Some of the poses that I went through this week were similar to those I had seen in pictures, like these of Guruji.


Heavily propped and full of lightness, they were longish stays. Sometimes I wish I could see pictures of my body in those shapes, just to understand how it looks on the outside. Most of my asanas now are touch, I only know them through their feel. Often, the set up behind my back is partly constructed after I have bent backwards and I can only exit by removing something. But, the touch of that asana, I remember.

Besides my teachers, there are numerous other hands that have helped me. One of the constants has been a lovely woman, B, who has seen me right from my broken wings days. Another has been P, conscientious and ready to help. J has been a help and apparently I’m the only one who got his name right. And the list goes on. I remain grateful to all who have poured of themselves to help.

It feels as though the heaviest and darkest clouds of sorrow have passed. Maybe this is what acceptance looks like, a washed sky after the rains. Maybe the season of grief is receding, like the monsoons in my part of the world which will soon withdraw and release the most beautiful autumn sunsets. Mostly I think it is magic. Yoga magic that happened while standing on my head or bending so far back that I could see no more. And finally those corners of the eyes opened.

Images: all courtesy the internet.

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

Of bricks and hills

By far, sitting in simple sukhasana for the invocation is the most difficult part of practice. The settling down on to the mat, preparing the body and mind to stay alert yet relaxed. Witness and participate in equal measure.
Maybe it's just habit but the invocation is an integral part of my home practice. The cues come quite naturally from all the instructions in class and I find myself running a mental checklist. And, there is something else happening now, a sense of interconnectedness that is not just intellectual. It's a physical play of the upper body and the lower body, the arms and legs, the fingers and knees and so on. I'm beginning to experience the nuances of expansion and extension for myself. It's discovery. This is common knowledge for those who have gone before me but these tiny ah ha moments are precious, gifts of abhyasa.

I'd originally thought of playing around with some balancing poses this morning but somehow veered towards opening the chest kind of poses. It was an instinctive carry forward from getting ready for japa practice much earlier. As I settled to start, there was a sense of many cogs in the body coming together to open the chest. Last Saturday, our teacher used the analogy of the gears in a watch working in sync to keep time. That thought has been simmering since then. Those kind of analogies are what catch my attention more than the 'knees straight', 'elbows locked' ones that are so much a part of our learning as raw students. Gross actions until we can start to actually get them into a semblance of activation. The practice felt intense like how a class feels despite it being a short one. Quality over quantity. The brick, wall and ropes were my teachers today as I experimented with them in ways I haven't learned or been taught. I ended up in the region of the abdomen where the breath found its pause and the mind found its expression.

Tapas and Tejas were the first words of those thoughts. Fire and heat right in the belly. More play with the five elements. And it took me to Prashantji's words about the manipuraka chakra. At such times, I so fervently wish to be able to spend more time at the Institute, soaking everything in and studying and practising. Perhaps even getting an opportunity to attend his classes. Maybe someday…

As my days in yoga pass, I am reminded time and again of how little I know or understand. It's nearly three years since I commenced learning and all those things that my teachers would say back then make a little sense today.

Teaching the body to obey is one thing but the greater learning has been bringing a sense of presence in it. Inhabiting the space and time of this embodiment. These are all just fragments of experiences and will take a while to become a new base level. Right now, it's the joy of having crested a hill. The view is fresh and I'm drinking it in with all my heart. It will become part of me in time and the journey of a thousand hills will continue.

Hari Om