Reflection on Yama

A conversation earlier in the day made me think of how the foremost precept in medicine or yoga is ‘Do no harm’. It also ties in with the first of the great vows.

I finished reading the yamas in the book (Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali) and have been reflecting on their mahavrata nature. It has been some time since I sat with different sets of contemplation, like vrittis or kleshas etc. Coming around to it now, it strikes me how different this reading has been. Repetition and a consciousness of these ideas have seeped through the mind over the years and let understanding evolve differently- almost as a gentle undercurrent, not seen but felt both deeper and wider. Moral dilemmas and ethical concerns now start to be examined with consideration and not in absolute terms. There is clarity at the existing level while also a consciousness of a subtler layer that would need a different application. 

Yamas are commonly regarded as restraints, injunctions or observances. But the sutra says these are ‘sarvabhauma mahavratam’, universal great vows. Implicit in its resounding sureness is its absolute nature, the highest standard. In the order of the sutras, yama and niyama are placed before asana and pranayama, yet we always begin at asana. We begin where we are, how we are. It doesn’t matter if one is returning after a long gap or is a complete novice. It has been one of the most beautiful aspects of yoga and Iyengar yoga in particular. It reminds me of artists who painstakingly create sand sculptures on a beach, fully aware that a wave will wash over it and there will be nothing left. What if we could be both artist and sculpture, fully devoted to making our lives as beautiful in a spirit of service with the full awareness of our transience? What if we could truly embrace aparigraha? This last one has caught my attention this time as the book invites considering why the phala of this particular yama is a knowledge of one’s past and future lives.

In one of his classes last week, Prashantji mentioned that “the embodiment is like a text book” and that like textbooks which are read repeatedly, one needs to learn to read one’s own embodiment. The yamas speak differently now, a little less rigidly despite their almost thunderous injunction of non-negotiability. If there is one thing this pandemic has taught us, it has been that we never know another completely and so do not have the context of their choices. 

These have been days of reflection, mulling over the question of how best do I apply the principles of ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha in my life. There are no easy answers for the likes of me, caught in the spin of everyday living. At best, it is a thin watered down version of what Sage Patanjali might have had in mind. The more I read, the more I realize how woefully insufficient it is to rely on translations alone. One needs to understand the language in which it was written, the health of our embodiments before considering yog. No wonder the need for the trifecta of treatises on grammar, medicine and yoga. No wonder the need to invoke samarthyam like Srineet mentioned in one of his classes. Ability and a worthiness, both of which the likes of us have to develop over a long, uninterrupted abhyas. Sometimes, it does feel like seeing through a kaleidoscope, the tumble of pieces throwing a different kind of connective pattern every single time.

Endless the possibilities.

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.

Aparigraha in a pandemic

Guruji was born during an influenza epidemic and his life was a difficult one for many decades. Even his early yoga journey was fraught with pain and hardship. He lived through pre-Independence India, poverty, ill health, loss, fame and prosperity. The one constant through it all was yoga and his sadhana went on to make him a household name. Despite all the accolades, he remained a student of the subject till the very end. Yoga was him and he was yoga. Period. For the likes of me, it is not as complete an immersion but we try to the best of our life situations.

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This morning I spent time with Pada 2 of the sutras and came back to 2.39 on aparigraha. Reflecting on it, I saw that it was basically talking about de-conditioning.

Quoting from the commentary in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,

Aparigraha means not only non-possession and non-acceptance of gifts, but also freedom from rigidity of thought. Holding on to one’s thoughts is also a form of possessiveness, and thoughts, as well as material possessions should be shunned. Otherwise they leave strong impressions on the consciousness and become seeds to manifest in future lives.”

Aparigraha is the subtlest aspect of yama, and difficult to master. Yet, repeated attempts must be made to gain pure knowledge of ‘what I am’ and ‘what I am meant for’.”

Constant inquiry is an integral part of learning yoga at RIMYI, it’s always dynamic and evolving. Never static and despite the curriculum remaining the same, the approach and teaching incorporate new elements. In a more personal context, I am reminded of what my teacher said about ‘seeds of weeds’. By working beyond just the apparent relief of body and heart, there was a reset in established patterns of thought and behaviour, a rewiring. That the mind can be addressed through the body is now internalized knowledge and not just theoretical.

It’s easy to get caught in fixed ways of thinking and feeling both on and off the mat and this clinging on prevents one from a deeper understanding of any situation. I also see it in asana as I explore beyond the actions required to assume a pose. As long as I am just repeating the instructions I have learned, I limit myself. Of course, the initial repetition is essential to internalize the method but the unfolding is in the personalizing of its interpretation. A bit like improvisation in music. Once you learn the notes and practise the scales for a suitable length of time, you can break the rules to explore and then the subject begins to also teach you.

I still remain cautious in asana but there’s an experimental feel to it as I correlate lessons from class and home practice. This week both the classes worked actively with the groin area and today’s home practice was a passive exploration of the same region from my knee therapy routine. And it taught differently. It got me thinking about how right from day 1 of a beginner’s class, the body is systematically prepared to open to its fullest capacity, literally and figuratively. Strangely, I found the beginner’s class harder than the intermediate one and it made me glad that I chose to retain the former. I guess I’m probably always going to remain a chronic beginner.

Asanas take up a small part of my day and its lessons are not about the body’s ability or progress as much as it is about mental, emotional and spiritual stretching. It is about endurance, resilience, patience, fortitude, good humour, playfulness, compassion and a whole host of other traits that allow us to live through good times and rough times with the same steadiness. These times are despairing with both a pandemic and mindless human violence. But there also exists solidarity and kindness that unite people even in these uncertain days. It may seem unbearable at the moment but all periods of transformation are difficult, individually and collectively. Eventually, we see that old ways have to evolve and adapt to meet the changing needs of a present and it calls for aparigraha. Now more so than ever.

De-conditioning

Five years ago, I was a new student at RIMYI, excited and nervous. Prior to applying, I scoured the internet to understand more about what I could expect as a beginner and found that there was very little for a rookie. Most of the material was written by those who had been practicing for a long time, many of them senior teachers in the system. It was also interesting to note that there was more material by international practitioners than by Indian ones. Five years since then, I’ve been a regular student at the Institute and still feel the same excitement at the start of a new academic year. It seems a bit surreal to have a virtual session considering how much physical adjustments have been an essential part of learning and therapy. And uncannily, the thought for June from last year’s calendar is ‘Yoga is deconditioning’.

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RIMYI shut down early March and the break from a teacher led learning forced me to pay more attention to exploring rather than just practicing. Most days, there would be some kind of a general direction be it standing poses, or forward extensions etc. But lately, it became exploration of a class of bodily regions like the groins in say Supta Padangushtasana 2 and Ardha Chandrasana. The actions themselves have begun to be less forceful and aggressive and softer in the nature of a curious watching. In the bargain, I find that I move further in the pose with less effort. I spend less time overall but it feels more intense.

Up until last year, I felt like Eklavya (here’s an earlier post) on the fringes of class, never reaching out or being part of the community. I stayed deep inside my limited self, terribly tongue-tied and hesitant to ask for help or answers. That began to change slowly although I still tended to lurk in the shadows at the back. But my teachers drew me out and I started to learn to loosen up.

In the last five years, my body went through different phases of fitness, injury, rehabilitation and health. Along the way, I discovered pride, arrogance, impatience, fragility, willingness, resilience and a host of other traits, some useful, others not so desirable. I’m not a hardcore practitioner and there are days I skip because of a day going unruly or then plain procrastination but not for too long. However, there was a time I was incapable of getting on the mat for days. It’s no longer guilt over not practicing but a need to set right the mind that brings me back to work with the body. Yoga is forgiving that way. No matter how long one is away, there is always a renewal and muscle memory is quick to activate.

The sutras enumerate the 9 obstacles and 4 distractions and also provide a choice of techniques to address them. But I was too far gone at one point to help myself through their use provided in the subsequent sutras (1.34-1.39). All I did was surrender completely to my teachers and go where they sent me. In retrospect, it was a single deep rooted surrender to this age old science and art. I believed if anything could help me navigate the difficult spaces of my life, it would be yoga. It’s been more than half a year since then and I’m still just about discovering bits and pieces of what happened during those terribly painful sessions. I’ve been revisiting some of my notes from then and it seems like another life. I remember my rough days simply to remind myself to be gentle with others, especially in these times. And so it circles back to my favourite sutra, 1.33.

This morning’s class was such a different one, from the home of my teacher to the homes of all of us students. We worked with basic asanas but in Iyengar yoga fashion, explored them differently, some of them not really asanas as much as a variation of possible movements till a tipping point, literally and figuratively. The Zoom avatar of class is an internal one, devoid of any performative aspect that shows up in a hall full of people. It feels almost like an individual class with just the teacher’s video on screen. In a way, it is a guided self-practice than a class, more inward looking with fewer distractions.

In the confines of my room or out in the woods, I can shut the madly careening world out. There’s much distress out there. As I type, there’s a cyclone making its way to the west coast of this country, one of the worst afflicted as far as the pandemic is concerned. We’ve already had Cyclon Amphan wreak its wrath on the east coast and locusts in the northwest besides the terrible plight of migrant workers trudging home in the most punishing of seasons. Halfway around the world, ignorance and deep rooted biases destroy lives alongside a virus. And through all this Mother Nature continues to adjust and reset indifferent to the fears and anxieties of her human children.

Personally, some of my life plans have had to be indefinitely postponed but there is a calm acceptance of a changed reality. It has also helped me re-calibrate my life to retain what really matters. I remain incredibly grateful for the privilege of safe shelter, food on the table, a stable mind and the ability to provide for my family. Guruji’s words ‘Live happily, Die majestically’ are even more relevant than ever with the awareness of the fragility and uncertainty of life. And as my teacher said today we can’t defeat the virus, we can try to dodge it as best as we can. Simple food, good rest and good exercise is pretty much all that we need, the rest has been non-essential as a 10 week lockdown has shown us.

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