Looking back

Six years ago, when I started this blog, it was simply with the purpose of documenting a beginner’s experience of Iyengar yoga. Six years hence, looking back, I see that it is more a navigation through the lens of yoga viewed through multiple perspectives of time and space. It hasn’t been about asana techniques or benefits but more an exploration of the different pathways that appear at different points in time.

It has been a while since I posted here. In the last three months, I spent a fair bit of time on the road before settling into the lockdown necessitated by a devastating second wave of the pandemic. This time around, the losses were closer home with friends, extended family and acquaintances falling ill and, in some cases, passing away. Besides the tumult outside, there were matters closer home that needed attention. Through all this, there remained a steadiness of mind and heart, with the ability to stay with uncomfortable emotions. Time on the mat and classes have been a constant through these last few months.

The 2019 calendar still hangs in my room and the thought of the month is something that still continues to percolate through my days. The month’s image is Guruji in setuband sarvangasana and the thought is ‘Yoga is harmony’. How can we experience harmony when there is so much suffering in the world outside? In the context of a pandemic, how do we live in harmony with a virus? Where can one find harmony in a situation of attacks and counter attacks? How can we remain in harmony when confronted with the devastation wreaked by forces of nature?

And yet, when I slip into the woods or step on my mat, there exists nothing but harmony. I watch the change of seasons, the rise and fall of new growth, the damage wreaked by storms, the weight of dead and decaying matter and there is balance. On the mat too there is the harmony of learning and unlearning, ability and inability, laziness and endeavour, resistance and acceptance. I find myself experiencing a beginner’s floundering once again as I wait for the actions and experiences that the teachers want us to experience. It comes in flashes just like the early days of asana. With time, some classes remind me of earlier classes and something from the early years makes sense. I recognize ease in ‘striking the pose’ as Prashantji says. There is a seamless coming together of different parts of the body to assume the asana, stay in it and dissolve it at its end.

At day’s end, it does feel like there has been harmony. The various elements of living both within and without have found their space without striking any incongruence. Prashantji’s classes this month have been way above my current ability. His use of language is quirky and can seem excessive at times but the more time I spend with his words, it seems like he is opening different doors to the same view. The pace is really rapid in terms of the subtleties he explains and I simply surrender to not knowing. It will come eventually when the body, mind and breath are ‘cultured’ enough. That word has stayed with me since the morning’s reading from his book, Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali. Asanas are for spiritual culturing. What does it mean to be cultured? That is definitely subject matter for long exploration.

Limitless

Prashantji’s classes are like an arc. It’s not a class in the sense that one is used to but more in the nature of a tasting followed by long cooking of precepts and principles. Asana time is barely half an hour in a 120 minute session but it is not easy by any means. And yet, the few asanas that I experienced were an unfolding. Despite no sequencing, no ‘warm up’ or staccato instructions of skeleton-muscular adjustments, there was a quietness and longevity of asanas by skilful use of breath and mind. I also see why some years need to pass to be able to develop sensitivity or perhaps I am simply slow to grasp.  

During one of the sessions, he spoke about practising in such a way today that we can practice in the future too. It resonated quite loudly with me. Just a few days ago, I was thinking about how I spent over 2 years in therapy class for my knees. All I did was mostly prone or supine asanas which eventually made it possible for me to be pain free and walk long, sit cross legged etc. It also prepared me for loss and losing, age and ageing and most of all to treat all of life as a preparation for dying well.

On the very first day of the session, he asked us to consider what the basics of Iyengar yoga meant. The first thought that sprung up was that it was to “live happily and die majestically” as Guruji said. Most of us are conditioned to say alignment, precision, sequencing but those are simply the starting point or building blocks. The magic starts when you deconstruct the ‘rules’, break them and start teaching yourself, learning yourself. Yoga is heuristic after all. After a period of time, there is an intuitive intelligence of the embodiment that adjusts organically if you can get the rigidity of the mind’s conditioning out of the way.  

Today’s session was a continuation of what may be viewed as a weaving of the ‘Strands of Body, Mind and Breath’. I couldn’t help but think of the strands of sattva, rajas and tamas through the very life force of the universe. Both- limitless. These sessions are like a tasting, an invitation to sip and make mental notes and bodily imprints. The class today was a kind of opening into understanding the intense transformational period many months ago. I have tasted the biochemistry of asanas although I do not know the hows and whys of it.

Prashantji began the class talking about exploring the chemical changes of asanas and how to approach them. The more time I spend as a practitioner of yoga (and I don’t mean asana alone, it also includes other sadhanas outside of the mat), the more comfortable I get with staying with not knowing. It allows for a receiving which is given as a benediction. This week has been fascinating and I’m looking forward to going back to the basics yet again and seeing them through a different lens. Somewhere, the desire for asana proficiency has been replaced by asana curiosity and in the bargain, I’ve begun to see the limitlessness despite our constraints. As a runner, I had too much to lose and then I lost it. As a yoga practitioner, even if I lose everything, there will still be Savasana as long as there is breath in the body.  

Last week in one of my regular classes, we approached malasana through different routes and it was again that same touch of limitlessness. Malasana is a beautiful pose, named after the garland it resembles. Floral garlands are an intrinsic part of Indian rituals and traditions, from weddings to pujas to inaugurations and felicitations. In traditional Indian weddings, there is an exchange of var malas. The garlands themselves range from simple to elaborate ones but their place in the ceremony remains similar. The act of garlanding is a mutual one, a receiving as well as a giving. Old stories speak about swayamvara where a woman chose her partner and indicated her choice by garlanding the suitor. Now, the exchange is a mutual one signifying acceptance of each other as life partners.

Taking possession of a new vehicle is often accompanied by the breaking of a coconut and a garland on the car. Deities are worshipped with malas, usually of flowers said to be dear to them. The entrance of houses are decorated with torans, especially during festivals and special guests are honoured with a flower garland.

In a way, the act of garlanding is a deeply mindful one of acknowledging the other and their part in our lives. In order to complete the circuit, there’s also a corresponding receiving of the offering. I suppose it is simply mimicking the endless cycles in nature, a continuous reciprocal acting. That class had malasana and its different scents through various forward extensions. While there is a certain proficiency in some of the asanas at a beginner level, there is also the awareness that asana practice is a continuum. As I stretch and find resistance in the body or unwillingness, I see corresponding holding back of the mind. I see how the breath and thought process in those situations are similar in life off the mat. There is acknowledgement of working within the constraints of bodily limitations and walking the tightrope of pushing forward and holding back. It’s interesting to see how some ‘difficult’ asanas are easier than the easy ones, the continuum of practice is a shifting one.

The beauty of this art is that there is never an end to its learning and discovering the limitlessness of the embodiment’s capability. Body, mind and consciousness stretching into infinity or compressing into nothingness. Both exist simultaneously. In the final malasana of that morning, there was an experience of that garlanding, equal parts giving and receiving. One of the shifts that has happened has been a receiving of where I am right now, whether capability or capacity. An ‘all is well’ regardless of the challenges that have been cropping up and they have been many and unrelenting. There has been displacement of routine thanks to some crazy amount of time on the road but despite that, I’ve managed to unroll my mat and join the sessions. One of the blessings of a pandemic has been access to classes regardless of where one might be.

Time and Time again

I decided to do the 18th week sequence from the Preliminary course book but come Virabhadrasana 3, a challenging pose for me, I paused. I looked up Light on Yoga, Yoga – A gem for Women and then a video on youtube and saw one of Kofi Busia teaching the pose. I didn’t take the same action since I saw that my problem child lay much more closer to the ground. I needed more of a lift especially in the left foot so rolled a belt and put it under the arch. Such a shift in stability. My knee got sorted, the snappy straightening of the leg didn’t happen and there was much more firmness in the leg not just while entering the pose but also exiting it. Usually, my ankles are dancing. An aha moment and one I tried in Trikonasana and Prasarita Padottanasana. The sequence went to toss as I explored the arches. It was a sharp zooming in and working piece meal. Post the session, I can still feel that steadiness. Skill versus power as Kofi Busia mentioned.

Feet First

And then I thought about how it always comes back to the feet, the foundation of our bipedal existence. In Virabhadrasana 3, the mind is already far ahead in the future, thinking about balancing. It’s a good pose to study Atha Yoganusasanam, which was my morning reading and reflection. It’s such a beautiful way to begin an exposition. An invitation to discard the baggage of the past and the uncertainty of the future to simply act in the present. In this moment, I have free will and agency. I can choose which way to move, I can choose to change a set pattern, I can choose to break free or I can choose to continue in established behaviours.

The beauty of ‘atha’ lies in its ever freshness. It is forever eternal because it only exists now. A couple of days ago, I was listening to a podcast on homeostasis. It is a condition where the body is maintained at a certain optimum condition internally. It is not a static state but an ever dynamic one, adjusting constantly for changing environments, external and internal. The various systems of the body kick in to function as an integrated whole and each and every cell is involved. Asanas are also like that, dynamic in their stillness. For an apparently quiet sirsasana, there are many cogs in the wheel working to maintain that steady stillness. Someone like Guruji had extreme consciousness of each and every cell of his body.

Beyond the microcosm of the human embodiment, the universe too remains in the constant flux of the gunas. The penultimate sutra states “As the mutations of the gunas cease to function, time, the uninterrupted movement of moments, stops. This deconstruction of the flow of time is comprehensible only at this final stage of emancipation.” Time has been a theme running through this year. Between time on the mat and time in the woods, there was a recalibrating that happened rather organically. A minute became just a minute, an hour just an hour and the ability to be in the present increased while the feeling of being overwhelmed with tasks disappeared. I suppose part of it also had to do with getting off the internet as a source of news, entertainment and distraction. In a very unrefined, gross sort of a way, this change in how I used technology allowed a peek into the possibility of finding time’s true measure. The last couple of months without digital noise has made it possible to listen without distractions.

In the woods, I look at the trees and see how they grow ever so slowly, no rush whatsoever and there is no hankering after becoming. It’s simply a being in that time. Some years the flowering and fruiting is not as much, some years it is profuse. There is disease, decay and death but no sense of finiteness in the forest. All that dies simply becomes part of the forest and takes a different form, it releases the pressure of having to achieve something. I’ve been experiencing something like that. I still work, I still have to meet deadlines and have chores etc but they’ve all settled into an easy pace. Surprisingly, I find that I pack far more into my day, have better outcomes and yet feel like I have a lot of leisure time. And all this with good humour and a smile. I’ve also probably retreated further more into myself but it doesn’t feel closed in rather as though I am standing in an open field of light.

Coming back to practice today, the attention to the arches were a going back to basics. I still attend beginners classes and intend to do so until I am kicked out of it. I find that stepping back a few paces and working on those initial adjustments with some time under my belt gives me a better understanding. I work just as hard in those sessions as I do in the Intermediate ones. Yesterday’s classes were standing back arches and we prepped with some seated ones. The same preparatory poses had made me feel acidic a few months ago but this time, nothing. And I could trace the change back to simply learning to quieten the abdominal region. And that was learned while sitting straight but with a soft belly for invocation. Softness. Our brains, hearts are soft and yet they power our entire existence. Without them we wouldn’t exist regardless of the firm bones and muscles. Off the mat too, it is the same. Skill more than brute strength. Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam

The last week was intense. In addition to the regular classes, I also made it to the 2020 Yoganusanam classes held by the Belur trust. This is the first time for me and I was reminded of the very first time I watched as an observer 5 years ago. Geetaji’s commanding voice, the 1000 odd people rising into the poses as one and the entire stadium held in an unbroken stream of concentration. Back then, I was interested in the sequences, technicalities of the asanas but it’s changed in terms of focus now. I listen to glean clues about how Guruji and Geetaji might have practiced, how their lives on and off the mat had the same dynamism and stillness. Ultimately asanas are also a prop.

Covid-19 changed many things and in the context of yoga, made the practice of asanas a very indrawn one even while learning online. No doubt, it’s been a more physical practice but the fruits have been in intellectual clarity, mental steadiness and emotional stability. This year has probably seen me on the mat almost daily compared to the previous years and it has borne fruit to the extent of my efforts, perhaps a little more than that. At year’s end, I find that the reflections on the thought for the month helped me learn to bring my attention to a single idea and allow that to be the substratum of my daily living to the best of my awareness and ability.

The next year, I’d like to stay with just one thought, ‘Guruji’. Actually, it is already active. My year started with his birth anniversary. Perhaps, simply keeping that one thought in mind, I may be able to let a flavour of his sadhana percolate into my life as a student of yoga.

A Gem of a Woman

Geetaji’s birth anniversary today.

I remember her voice. I remember her presence in the large hall. I remember her smile, her earnestness, her simplicity. And I miss never having had the good fortune of being under her direct gaze.

I never learned from her but her videos and books teach me, her students teach me. This morning, I attended the usual two classes, an asana one followed by a pranayama session. Later this evening, Abhijata taught a class in her honour. 3000 people from around the world signed in to remember a brilliant teacher. Despite the isolated nature of the webinar, there was a sense of being part of a community united in its love and respect for a gem of a teacher. It was a repeat of a class Geetaji taught in November 2006 and at the end of it, it was amazing how even in a rendition, her words was still so powerful. Not a moment of wavering attention, that’s how strongly she forced you to inhabit the moment in the asana from even beyond the dead.

I remember how devastated I felt when she passed away, it was a loss that felt very personal despite never having directly interacted with her. Two years down the line, the sense of loss is no longer there. She lives in the words of my teachers who faithfully transmit what they learned from her. She herself was the staunchest torch bearer of the Iyengar Yoga tradition.

Lately, I’ve been in a sort of retreat while being in the world. Digitally disconnected in terms of news, social media and even blogging and I got time in swathes. My days have been a fulfilling mix of a little work, yoga, walks and reading. The connectivity provided by the internet while useful has also sucked much out of life and the past few weeks of fullness has had me thinking that I could easily make this my default setting. The woods I frequent have been a wonderful learning ground this past year. I’ve spent many hours walking, absorbing not just the pleasures of fresh air and quiet but also lessons about time, love, silence, joy and what it means to live fully. There is contentment in its simplicity and I find it has seeped into my life too.

This month’s thought says Yoga is to surrender. It is so beautifully linked to last month’s thought of Yoga is Action. Abhyasa and Vairagyam. Asanas and Savasana. Inhale And Exhale. Increasingly I find that maybe there is no need for more words, whether to read or write. All that I need to know is already known.

Yoga is Action

Think action and the twin attitudes of Abhyasa and Vairagyam flow together. And that is the art of living as a science, philosophy and art.

If I were writing in sutras, I’d simply leave it at this.

Savasana reflection post class

Savasana was a longish stay today and after an almost leisurely class, the stay in it felt like I did not exist, save for a section of the torso that had the movement of breath. I did not have a sense of the rest of my body, it was like there was nothing there, no limbs. Soon after, my teacher parts class with “Go beyond the structure of savasana” and that explained my experience.

I see another transitioning, from ebullience in backbending to dynamic stillness in it. The immediate image that comes to mind is one of Guruji in an urdhva dhanurasana against the platform. Eventually, I suppose it would become even quieter where one might be able to go beyond the structure of the asana.

Notes from practice, classes etc are pointless against the actual experiencing. The last 2 or 3 months, I’ve stayed away from making notes and instead let the body make its own.

Yoga is the art of living

The thought for October reads, Yoga is the art of living. As I mentioned in the last post, the more I stay with these monthly contemplations, it becomes increasingly evident how difficult the simple statements are. As the month commenced, it also struck me how thoughtfully the thoughts were arranged in a progression through the months. Before I looked at next month’s thought, I was musing over how the art of living is one of integration which is nothing but karma yoga. And as Krishna says, action without the expectations of its fruits, abhyasa and vairagya are the twin heartbeats of a seeker. I took the calendar down and listed down all the statements and I see how their sequencing is a bit like sequencing in asanas and the teaching of the same.

December   2018 – Yoga is being eternally contemporary

January 2019 – Yoga is awareness

February 2019 – Yoga is purity

March 2019 – Yoga is sensitivity

April 2019 – Yoga is equanimity

May 2019 – Yoga is harmony

June 2019 – Yoga is deconditioning

July 2019 – Yoga is experiencing innocence

August 2019 – Yoga is compassion

September 2019 – Yoga is integration

October 2019 – Yoga is the art of living

November 2019 – Yoga is action

December 2019 – Yoga is to surrender

Yoga as the art of living is really an invitation to be alive. It us an invitation to fully inhabit our embodiment. In the foreword to Light on Yoga, Menuhin talks about it being each and every time a living act. That little opening is a favourite and one I’ve read so many times that it comes unbidden. What does it mean to live? What does it mean to live as a human being? I suppose these are questions that are continuously answered every single moment as we range the spectrum of tendencies from divine to demonic. At day’s end, when I reflect on the activities, actions, words and thoughts, I often notice how things could be handled better. Increasingly, I also notice how I’ve learned to respond differently although it is easy to slip into the unthinking comfort of habit.

The last couple of practice sessions were frustrating and I realized that I had crept towards outcome and not effort. It’s also a gentle reminder that a post 40 body is different. As a woman, there are the monthly ebbs and flows of menstruation along with the ageing that begins to accelerate. Add existing injury or degeneration and the mix is one that needs a balanced handling. Not too little, not too much but always pushing the edge of possibility. I suppose when I think about the art of living, it is really the art of effortless effort, prayatna shaithilyatha. One of my teachers used a lovely analogy in Uttanasana. He asked us to imagine Thakur (from Sholay) doing the pose. (Thakur doesn’t have hands) Often, we tug and pull to reach the chin to the shin but the elegance of the body dropping in surrender to the ground is a beauty to watch as well as experience. There is no attachment, simply a surrender. As I type, I again see how the thoughts of the months have been so beautifully linked like a sutra.

Integration to the art of living to action to surrender.

Integer -Integration

September comes to an end and with it another month of rumination, this time on Integration. At different levels, there is integration, within one’s singularity, with another and then a world at large. I. You. We. Nature however rearranges grammatical hierarchy by starting with we and then trickling down to the I. Natural ecosystems are a beautiful expression of integration. The animate and inanimate coming together to create, sustain and destroy. When that balance is lost, there is depletion and desolation but left to itself, there is a beautiful symphony of a constantly evolving integration which is complete. I suppose we’ve crossed a tipping point in that respect but nevertheless there is hope that a universe that has managed to be around for so long has a few ways and means to ensure continuity of this tiny little blue speck.

At a very primal level, we see ecosystems, constantly adapting, evolving. We humans have created another well entrenched ecosystem of technology which is also constantly learning and getting smarter. It is in the nature of things in the universe, to expand and contract, grow and decay and this entire cycle of creation, sustenance and destruction is a beautiful expression of the concept.

In class, in practice, we work on small sections of the body to bring awareness, wakefulness and wholeness. Over a period of time, many little parts start finding their wholeness and eventually they come together to make a complete asana. Body, mind and breath come together in the repose of a pose, each time a whole but also an evolving whole. Lately, the work we do and what I try to practise is to bring the softness, quietness or calm that my teacher talks about alongside the firmness. It is harder to be soft than to hold firm but when both come together there is a different combustion. As far as the breath is concerned, the inhalation is whole in itself as is the exhalation and the retention. All three come together in one integrated breath. The mind with its tendencies and colour extend into the way we think, speak and act.

But yoga is more than just grunt work on a mat, it is a way of being in the world but not necessarily of it, as seen in its 8 petals. In an earlier time, there was conflict in my mind between being in the world and being not of it and so there was confusion at seemingly contradictory aspects of living. There was rigidity and a closed mindedness, a hardness which reflected in the body’s inability to completely let go. Perhaps that’s also why I steered away from pranayama until now. It’s taken me 6 years and a pandemic to take tentative steps into preparing for it.

It hasn’t been too difficult to see yoga in my everyday whether in the effortless flight of the black kites from my balcony floor or the words in a lovely book. I started to see how the different interests and time spent were not in conflict with being a student of yoga and in fact they added a richness to it. Some time ago, I settled on 3 questions to ask myself when confronted with a choice.

Is it true?

Is it good?

Is it beautiful?

Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram. Sometimes there are variations on this depending on the context. I didn’t figure out then that it was a process of integration. Again seen through asana eyes, I can ask myself if the pose is true, if it is good and if it is beautiful. Does it have Rupa, Lavanya and Balam? And the only answer that matters is the one that comes up from deep within my own heart.

I just finished a lovely book called Braiding Sweetgrass. It was a slow savouring and not the usual mad gobbling of words. The pages have been heavily highlighted, thankfully it was a kindle read and so no actual pages were mutilated. Leaving a couple of sentences from the book here.

Native scholar Greg Cajete has written that in indigenous ways of knowing, we understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion and spirit.

– Robin W Kimmerer

Towards the end the author says,

‘The spark itself is a mystery, but we know that before that fire can be lit, we have to gather the tinder, the thoughts, and the practices that will nurture the flame.’

– Robin W Kimmerer

While this exercise began as a simple way to stay with a thought, over the months I have begun to see how difficult it is to truly understand. The reading for the month has been the Kenopanishad, a wonderful short few chapters on knowing. It’s uncanny how lessons in life have a way of rearranging themselves to bring you an integrated understanding. It’s no surprise for an integrated universe but for the likes of me, it still remains a bit magical.

“Yoga is compassion”

August’s thought was one that I was conscious about every single day. This one was a tough one to stay with, it threw up many false notions about myself. The degree of compassion often only extends to where my ideas and beliefs are not at odds.

Compassion means being able to pause, reflect and respond.

Compassion means listening completely, including silences.

Compassion means a deep sense of oneness, it cannot exist in separateness.

Compassion means being of service, not being attached.

Compassion is easier with people outside of your immediate family where the opportunity for friction is less.

 

Just a placeholder post while I let this thought linger.

The house of trikonasana

Despite the intensity and frequency of the classes I’ve been attending, there was a plateau of sorts. It was a continuous labouring while the magic was missing. These phases are common in learning and have always led to some brilliant aha moments. This time around they were aha days beginning with a class last week. Subsequent days have been like a breakthrough with different actions coming together.

It began with a brick in one of the classes that awakened the mind and body to bring all the actions that were being taught into one unit as a whole. From the crown of the head to the toes, each area was jogged into wakefulness separately over the days and somehow they started to sort of work together simultaneously too. Of course, it remains a very, very preliminary coming together but the sense of the cogs working in unison is there. Much of the awareness be it limb or spine has been thanks to simple props like the brick, belt or wall. Amongst the props, I prefer the hard wooden blocks and benches for their ability to give clarity. I enjoy the imprint they leave long after the practice is over. The wall while seemingly a support is a tough teacher.

Image courtesy: the internet

Today’s practice, actually play, was completely spontaneous and not a repetition of anything I’ve learned in class. Just a freewheeling with bricks and the wall. End result was a (what I thought) good looking trikonasana. Post practice, I looked at Guruji’s image in the pose, watched the 26 minutes trikonasana teaching by Geetaji and read from The Alpha and Omega of Trikonasana.

I’m reasonably satisfied with the presentation today but even before comparing my picture to see the improvements required, I noticed areas that were not fully engaged. Studying the asana against Guruji’s image sharpened that understanding while Geetaji’s instructions reminded me of some of the actions that needed to be kept in mind. Finally, the book put the pose in perspective by helping me see the rungs of the ladders in studying an asana. Staying with the imagery of bricks and working with bricks brought to mind the traditional methods and tools of masons. There’s a centrality, evenness and wholeness in a well executed structure, just like what is sought in asana.

Why bother with such attention to detail? Why bother with such rigour when it is essentially just a pose held for a brief time? How does working towards perfecting Trikonasana make a difference in my life or that of anyone else? Every once in a while, I ask myself the why of what I do in the different spaces of my life. The base answer usually remains the same but I do discover aspects of myself as new layers get uncovered. In the case of asana, one answer would be that I want a good savasana experience, that’s where I experience fruition of asana. Another would be that I would like to improve my staying capacity and alignment in sirsasana. The answer that doesn’t usually crop up is that I work hard to develop persistence, courage, equanimity, resilience, compassion, joy, good humour etc. but that is the real why. Those attitudes are the building blocks of living well, keeping the house of one’s life standing firm, come stillness or storm.

I’m keenly aware that sometimes the tempests of illness, injury, loss etc. can be terrifying and houses collapse, people crumple. I too have experienced that bewilderment of loss, literally and metaphorically. It seems impossible to get on the mat or sift through the debris. But brick by brick, a house comes to stand again, doors open, sunshine enters through its windows. Space is created, in the body and the heart.