Pranamami Patanjalim

25 years ago, I heard the invocation to Sage Patanjali for the very first time. It took quite a few sessions before I could recite it along with the others. This was long before access to the internet and we had to wait for class for a repetition. Fast forward to today and I chanted the invocation aloud after a long time.

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There are a few beautiful idols of SagePatanjali in the institute and the artist’s rendition of the form is beautiful. It conveys great potential and stillness at the same time. I’ve mused about it earlier too.

A few months ago, the invocation would make me all teary eyed and so I was told to stop chanting it. Instead, I stayed in Vipareeta Dandasana on the bench and leaked or heaved grief. Over the last few weeks, I’ve silently mouthed the words or whispered it, not trusting myself to remain still. Baby steps.

Invocation is a common feature in traditional studies and all the texts begin with one. It sets the tone for teaching and learning where one leaves all other roles and enters into a time and space of NOW or the ‘atha‘ that the first sutra mentions. As much as there is responsibility on the teacher to impart teaching, there is also an equal effort expected of the student to learn.

The invocation to Patanjali is a standard across Iyengar classes, sometimes accompanied by the Guru Brahma mantra. Often, the teachers draw attention to some part of the body and later that turns out to be the focal point of study through the sequence. A few years ago, it would be a kind of mental game to guess what might be the asanas for the class. Interestingly, class today was almost the same as my home practice yesterday. One of the differences was that I overdid in class while yesterday’s home practice was pushing just beyond the limitations of comfort and fear of injury.
One was an external, display kind of approach while the other was an internal exploration approach.

Around the time, the downward spiral started, I realized that I needed to let myself go completely to come back. It was contrary to a rigid self belief that come what may, I had to continue in a regimented fashion but the body and mind were unwilling and unyielding. I had to learn to receive help and start from the beginning. Funnily, the good habits from then came back naturally once the mind started to empty itself of leftover emotional debris.

In a strange way, the universe binds us all more closely than we realize. After class, I thought of writing about my experience with the invocation and my dear faraway friend’s post about it was just the little nudge I needed to share my thoughts.

The dance of life

A couple of years ago, if someone had to ask me to choose between being steeped in yoga and my normal life, I wouldn’t be able to choose the former. Yet, it was always a dream to fulfill once my responsibilities were over.

And then the last year unraveled in ways I hadn’t imagined. Life threw quite a few curveballs in quick succession and forced a complete destruction of all that I held normal. Every single thing. All the yoga classes over the last few months worked with erasing the vestiges of that limited self, forcing me to confront myself. It’s amazing how much we build around the idea of who we are instead of who we actually are. Deeply flawed and potentially divine.

Destruction happens. It’s always happening in nature when leaves turn yellow and fall, creatures die, lava incinerates and tsunamis wash away many lives. Yet, nature creates, not recreates. Even humans. We say rebuild but it’s actually creating from scratch because the old does not exist any longer. That is consumed by time. The Natraj statue in the library was a beautiful representation of that thought.

The angst has passed, some anxiety remains and I find saying No helps, deciding one way or the other helps. Unless I close the door and walk out into the sunshine, I will never be in the light. It is not the way of the world, to drop back and trust that the ground will receive you. But, it is the way of the sutras, of continuous, dedicated abhyasa and vairagyam.

It reminds me of something I learned early – be careful what you wish for, it just may come true. It certainly appears to be the case now and I’m humbled, grateful and a bit unbelieving of my good fortune to study yoga. Sometimes great things are born of terrible pain.

Why do you practise yoga?

I found myself in the library reading transcripts of one of Geetaji’s talks from nearly two decades ago. As always, many gems in there and I wrote down some of them in my book. One of the thoughts that stayed was a question. Why do you practise yoga? If I had to answer for myself, I would say mental clarity, emotional intelligence and perhaps more longingly a chance to experience a spell of being boundless.

It is amazing how much progress has happened with the knee in the last three weeks. All it took was letting the teachers know what I felt. For a long time, I felt that the root of my knee condition lay in the groins and sure enough, I’ve seen a huge turnaround since that day.

It’s a different experience to practise passively, mostly just relaxation and with a lot of assistance. Surrender at multiple levels, to the body’s intelligence, to a teacher’s touch and of the mind’s desire to be doing. Yoga looks very different from a prone position. I suppose when you’re on the ground, you can’t go any lower. Perhaps the last year was about grinding down until I lay face down and stripped the layers of fear. Learning to own up to my life and let that song be heard. It is difficult when you are used to singing alone.

The face of my yoga practice has changed from feeling a lack of availability to acknowledging what is present. The sensitivity of the body is much greater than what it was during days of active asana but I doubted it. How could it be possible for someone so young in yoga to feel that way? I still remain skeptical but there is a tiny voice that tells me that perhaps it is what it is. The ability to experience need not necessarily be related to the length of practice.

Update:

Today’s sutra class was on 1:18 and explored that same boundlessness. It’s unnerving and exhilarating at the same time to find that the experience ‘i’ sought is one that is spoken of in these studies. And as the sutra speaks, transcending even the balance of potential sanskaras, the restraining ones. I can’t help but feel immense gratitude for the opportunity to listen and soak in Prashantji’s words.

Sometimes I wonder if I should write here, and if it isn’t self inflating but then I remember why I started. Perhaps another who begins their journey can see my stumbles and know that it is a journey that is worth it. An offering of gratitude. As Prashantji says, the sadhana is through Shastrasangha, satsangha etc.

This lovely card is a physical expression of an invisible sangha

“Yoga is the word which stands for the whole process and the whole philosophy” – Geeta Iyengar

It’s been a few weeks since Geetaji passed away and I miss her presence in the hall. My eyes roam to the end where she used to sit but that space is taken up by props and the people they support. The energy in there is urgent now, a fire that is constantly stoked to keep the teachings alive. All the teachers pour themselves into the discipline and I can’t help but see how dynamic and organic the process of teaching and learning is. And as I leave, I see the huge picture of Guruji looking into that hall and think all is well.

Hari Om

Designed spaces

The main hall at RIMYI has four pillars which neatly divides it into 5 parts and I can’t help but muse if it wasn’t a deliberate esoteric design meant to make the students pause. The platform and the ceiling mirror this principle of five. I wonder if it is a way to subconsciously cue the Pancha kosha, pancha bhuta, pancha prana and so on.

A bag to hold place until the session starts

The pinnacle of the building has a shrine to the eternal Hanuman and the numerous sculptures that occupy different spaces throughout the building and compound invite contemplation. Oftentimes, I reach the hall early when it is mostly empty and look around soaking in the different elements present. Slowly, the room fills in with people, some with euphoric expressions of practice, many with a serious demeanour, a few chatty in company and still others who sit alone. No prizes for guessing which category I fall into. 😊

Soon, there will be an intense exploration of the sutras that demand 100% attention. Until then, I sit and see.

Hari Om

Subsumed in Smriti

A couple of weeks ago, we explored ‘smriti‘ as part of the sutra study at RIMYI. Just a day before that I was talking with someone about memory and since then ‘smriti‘ has been a continuous whisper.

Prashantji mentioned how the other vrittis were ‘subsumed by smriti‘ and that phrase has taken root. Smriti again. Memory is a loose translation for smriti as the latter indicates knowledge recollected as well as the recollection of the process of knowing . The technical delving into the vrittis is a fascinating exercise and one that is deeply rich at the Institute. Between Prashantji and Srineet, there is a lovely balance of structure and flow. I remember thinking how the teachings of the family are like a river, continuously flowing. No matter at what point one enters it, one is bathed. The generosity of their sharing reminds me of something I read once about how sharing even the little we know is important since that could possibly help someone else to get more out of that small piece of knowledge.

Back to smriti, the concept was deeply immediate to my current situation. How does one use smriti in its aklishta form? How do you examine all the vrittis that come remain encapsuled by it? How much can you trust the mind and the senses? Regret for the past and worry about the future also lie in its realm. The current embodiment is a result of smritis of previous lifetimes. How does one work through the weight of all that past?

The sutra leads on to the twin rivers of Abhyasa and Vairagya, one flowing outward and the other to the source. ‘Chitta Nadi’. It is the solution Lord Krishna gives Arjuna as well. Oftentimes when I open the Bhagwad Gita, the page that appears is the shloka (6:35) that provides the same solution. The treatment of the solution in the Sutras and the Gita is the same but its expression is beautiful in both. Terseness in one and personal in the other to suit the capacity of the sadhaka. Krishna taps into the innate warriorhood of the Pandava prince by addressing him as ‘mighty armed’ and brings an empathetic understanding of the difficulty in restraining the restless mind before laying out the prescription.

Abhyasa uses smriti. In asana practice or study of the texts, the mind employs smriti to go further leading to more smriti. And what is the limit of the mind’s capacity? What is the limit of the capacity of the cosmos of which we are not even a drop?

Our lives are part of that uninterrupted recording and we are mostly without any real control since our thoughts and feelings based in the past drive our present. Instinct must come from that recollection of millenia. I imagine (vritti again😊) Vairagya would be the ropes of smriti falling off by itself. No burden of past impressions or future anxieties.

This student is deeply grateful for the experience of listening to the learnings of teachers who have thought deeply on the subject of yog. These ruminations are but a tiny interpretation of what was understood of a few things that they shared. Perhaps in time, something else will be revealed from all that was heard until now.

Hari Om

A wandering student

My evenings have a new routine. Most days, I spend an hour at a park watching the tableau of life play out. Children playing, birds picking their branches for the night, adults walking, older people watching over grandchildren, lovers snatching a cozy conversation and so on. Sometimes I write or read but mostly I just watch the sun as it dips behind tree tops.

Underneath a tamarind tree

I miss watching the sunrise from my new place and the sparrows still haven’t found the bird feeder yet. There are a couple of stray kittens that have stolen my heart and it feels good to shower love with such abandon. The roses continue to bloom as do the jasmines with their heady night scents. The season is beautiful with cool winds and a touch of music as the heart meets the head.

We call him muttbaby 1

In the Iyengar yoga world, there is much excitement with the centenary celebrations and I do hope to make it for atleast one of the days. But, mostly, my offering has been quiet study and fledgling practice. The surprising thing has been the powerful recall of cell memory as I get on the mat.

The Gita continues to be a trusted companion and in the lines I have read many times, I rediscover their beauty all over again albeit with a different flavour. Our interpretations are always coloured by life experiences, always a cumulative of all moments until now.

An alternate set of circumstances has shown a different translation of the same meanings. A year of painful transition or perhaps transformation, only time will tell. For now, it’s a slow beginning once more with nothing the same and everything just so.

I’ve been drawn to the imagery of Patanjali as half man and it has been a focus of contemplation. What does it mean to be human? The bodily representation. of Patanjali as man consists of the trunk resting on the coils of his serpentine half. An ascension of energies possible in a physical structure. A lightness of being in the denseness of existence.

I remain a wandering student destined for self-study and it’s just beginning to dawn on me that maybe it’s liberating. Of course, it also means a lot of wrong turns and a longer time to learn but the journey is worth it. But, it wouldn’t be possible without the wisdom and generosity of knowledge of the giants who came before me. I remain indebted to my many teachers.

Hari Om

10 months later…

It’s taken me nearly 10 months to go through the Gita this time, a slow study of a few shlokas a day with some short stretches of breaks from reading. I turned the last page at about 4:30 this morning and as I sat thinking about the journey through these pages, it was interesting to see how much change was happening in my life during the course of my study. An extremely uncertain and challenging phase which fugued into an even more displaced time.

While my copy of the book is marked with words that spoke directly, it feels like I’ve barely begun to dip into its nectar. 701 verses concluding with Sanjaya’s conviction, “Wherever is Krishna, the Lord of Yoga, wherever is Partha, the archer, there are prosperity, victory, happiness and firm (steady or sound) policy; this is my conviction.”

यत्र योगेश्वर: कृष्णो यत्र पार्थो धनुर्धर:।

तत्र श्रीर्विजयो भूतिर्ध्रुवा नीतिर्मतिर्मम ।।७८।।

There are a couple of interesting points in this shloka. The first being, the presence of both the Lord of Yoga and the archer as a necessary condition. The second is the fruit of their joint presence.

Swami Chinmayananda speaks about Krishna as the ‘marriage between the secular and the sacred’ and the natural progression of such a union being prosperity, victory/ success, happiness and firm policy.

Shree, Vijaya, Bhuti, Dhruva neeti are the sanskrit words and it intrigued me enough to spend some time wondering on the promise they held. While the common translations seem adequate, I cannot help shake a sense of something that goes beyond the word meaning to the root meaning. Unanswered for now but there is a churn inside that throws up flashes like exalted earthly existence, sthiratha and sukham of the Sutras etc. Perhaps, I’m barking up the wrong tree, perhaps not. We’ll see in time.

The last shloka is Sanjaya’s conclusion of the Divine Song and appropriate to one in the thick of a battle for dharma in the context of the Mahabharata. Goals of victory, prosperity and a stable rule. Outside of that context, in the modern day scenario, the battlefield is our internal mindscape. No less intense and the promise is a prosperity of radiant thoughts, small victories over the fears conquered, steadiness of contentment and the permanence of the purpose of our lives, like the pole star.

Finishing this slow plod through the book has only made me feel how much of an Arjuna I remain in between armies, suspended in time and space.

A wooden inlay panel that I love looking at in my home.