Samatvam

Technically, I am doing only one offline class. In the others, I am a student but from an assisting perspective. They are vastly different. I am comfortable in following instructions and adapting to my physical conditions, getting in and out of poses, using props, supporting areas that need help etc. but when it comes to other bodies, the reading from a helper’s perspective is a new one. As an observer, it is easy to simply note but while adjusting, there is technique, skill and agility required. It is a different kind of learning. In the medical class, the method is one of improvisation so there is a whole lot of gear shifting. And then there are online classes, three that I attend besides 2 as a demonstrator. Those are different in the quietness of my home.

I make notes else there is no way to keep track of the progression of classes, the way the theme of one class links to another. They are short ones that I go through before a class to remind myself. I also find myself watching and practising to videos, reading and writing. In short, it is like being in school or college. And I’m loving it. So much so, that other things seem like disturbances. If it weren’t for the need to pay bills and the unavoidable familial and social commitments, I probably would just want to study forever.

Yesterday evening, I was playing the helper’s role in an evening class and as the teacher exhorted the students to “do maximum”, I found myself smiling, remembering how it would feel impossible when she would say that and all that I could hear in my head would be, ‘when will she say, ok come down’ and the relief that would rush through the muscles. I could see that in the students. But at the end, there would be a sense of accomplishment and a spring in my step while leaving. I see that light in others. It is very interesting to observe bodies, they speak quite eloquently. While assisting, some of them resist while others welcome the help. These days, I find myself slowly assuming my place in that hall and providing what is needed, listening and doing. All I have to do is simply listen to the teacher and see if her instructions are being implemented.

While it was a mix of last week and 5th week kind of asanas, if I had to pick a theme, it would be samatvam, evenness. In one of the recent yoga sutra sessions or perhaps it was one of his classes, Srineet mentioned how ‘samatvam yoga uchyate‘ which is used commonly as a definition does not really say it all, Samatvam is more in the nature of a result or effect of yoga. It makes sense to see it both ways. After all, cause and effect are the same, just different manifestations.

Pot Pourri

Yesterday evening, Prashantji spoke about the difference between the humbleness of a giver and a receiver in the context of breath and mind. And that stayed. As I begin to find my way around his classes, I am keenly aware that I am not quite eligible but I persevere. There is enough faith in the subject and the process that I know things will become apparent when the conditions are right. In the meanwhile, all I am required to do is show up sincerely. The question he posed made me feel as though his class really begins when it ends. The precepts he talks about, while to do with the breath and mind, are really more a nudging into enquiry, practice off the mat.

Coming back to the question about the humbleness of giver’s mind and the receiver’s mind, I can’t help but marvel at the subtlety and nuance of the bhava in each of the roles. One can draw a parallel with the ‘knower’, ‘known’ and ‘knowing’ here which is quite a recurrent theme in philosophical studies. First of all, it is interesting to see the terms used as giver and receiver versus giver and taker. The former, for me, implies value which cannot be quantified. It could be considered akin to two sides of a coin, a completion of circuit, a oneness. The giver is not really separate from the receiver. Seen in this manner, yoga of/for the breath and the mind begin to make sense.

Dead Man’s Fingers on a decaying tree stump is just one small example of the giving and receiving one sees in nature.

Giver and taker are more in the nature of a transactional exchange. I suppose the initial inhale and come up, exhale and go down could be considered in this fashion. Vaishyavarna or the class of traders. Guruji has referenced the castes in context of stages of a student/ practitioner. In fact, today’s class was an interesting one in terms of these exchanges while we cycled through a few krounchasanas towards the end of the class. It was something to observe even as the class started from the very first samasthithi. Tadasana or Samasthithi has always been a fascination for me. It is a whole body asana and coincidentally, also one of the options in Sunday evening’s class. These symmetrical poses are wonderful in their ability to hold a mirror, to show the sama in samasana.

I think about posting here but somehow the day slips away from me and I barely manage to make notes about my thoughts/ reflections from class. And before I know it, many days, weeks pass. I did think about doing a regular wrap to consolidate the week’s learnings/ reflections but that seems a herculean task now, considering the way the subject is opened up by different teachers. It is like rain, wonderful life-sustaining rain. And perhaps, I am not ready for all that profusion as I find myself trying to navigate the vastness that is yog. But I do believe that it will seep into my being and sprout some saplings when the time is right.

Holiday Practice – Menstruation

As women, the menstrual cycle provides a pretty reliable reading of the body and mind. To some degree, there is an internal sense of where one is on the cycle simply by virtue of how the body feels. And if one is a practitioner, asanas speak it loudly. Post Covid or mid 40s, I can’t be sure which one or if it is both, my cycles have been mildly irregular and there have been changes. It is a little disconcerting for someone who has been regular as clockwork. Long story short, Day 1 of cycle and it was early but that explained the practice experience yesterday and the day before.

Supine poses, supported forward bends and supported Setuband Sarvangasana was on the menu this evening. Morning saw some supine asanas to relieve discomfort. It also felt appropriate to read through a much-thumbed copy of an essay by Geetaji on the practice of women.

During practice, I also listened to a talk about props by Abhijata from Yoganusasanam 2015. Earlier, I would feel a bit of a missing out when I was menstruating but now it is a welcome relief to stay in supported asanas. I also notice a recalibration of my cycles to the lunar phases every 6 months. I don’t know if there is anything significant about this change but there is a change in creative output every time it is synced to the full moon.

About 7-8 years ago, I got introduced to the idea of practising/ training as per one’s cycle by my then yoga teacher. I used the concept while training for my first half marathon and it became a sort of personal blueprint. I mapped it for a couple of years alongside food intake, sleep and also dominant thought patterns. It was useful to get acquainted with my own being in a methodical way. I no longer maintain the log but the lessons from that endeavour has allowed me to take care of myself as I needed through these years.

I also worked in the space of sustainable menstruation for a few years which opened up a whole universe of challenges. On one hand there was a section of the population that struggled with basic needs of hygiene and sanitation while another grappled with deep rooted gender related anxieties. Across both groups, there were menstrual imbalances. A significant chunk of it could possibly be rectified by simple changes to food and exercise but there was reluctance to change lifestyle habits. While there is a great deal of awareness about the physiological process and the science behind it, we have lost much of traditional sensibility in dealing with a natural phenomenon. There are a few people who ride against the tide but polarization in a digital world is so strong that it is an uphill task to have a reasonable discussion without one side tearing the other down. Like Abhi says, we need to first learn to connect then to communicate, only then can we integrate and there can be union.

Holiday Practice- Flamingo Inspired

A quick intercity trip meant the chance to see flamingos. The timing though was off but I did manage to see a small group flying in and then feeding. Not the flamboyance I expected but I hope to get a look soon enough. While driving back to Pune, I thought about the birds and thought it might be fun to try out one legged asanas. These birds are stable on one leg for long stretches of time since they are able to lock their ligaments and tendons in their legs. This reduces the muscular effort required and they loaf in the quirky position (for us). There are other birds that do this too but the long legs of the flamingo make it particularly striking.

Image shared by a friend

While the birds may enjoy their snooze on one leg, for humans it is a challenge to spend any significant amount of time in a similar position. It is hard to find both stability and serenity on one leg. The requirement for balance is great and paradoxically, that is the first thing to be lost as one thinks about it. Instead focus on an action, a location, either internal or external, results in balance. Seeking balance is worrying about the future while focus is being here, now and doubts belong to the past.

One of the first one legged poses we learn is Vrikshasana, the tree pose. So, I started and ended with that one after going through all the other one-legged poses that were available to me. It was a study in evaluation more than exploration. The way the left and right side of the body behaves is a classic Goldilocks problem, too much or too little. 🙂 With these kinds of asanas, there are certain days when it is more readily available. I feel steady and there is a lightness while being firm but on others, especially PMS time, it is a struggle. Asanas are truly a living lab. So many factors determine the texture of a pose, internally and externally. Age, physical and mental conditions (short term and long term), weather, state of the world at large etc. It changes how one approaches the asanas too.  

It wasn’t a sequence led practice yesterday, just an assumption of the poses to see what worked and what didn’t. While the initial tendency was to seek balance, soon the awareness shifted to simply the actions and locations. And I see the tremendous value of all standing poses. If I have to look at the asanas from an aesthetic point of view, there is much lacking but the reality is inaccessibility of certain actions/ areas for different reasons. It is like compacted soil, takes time to coax it to soften. But one day, it yields. As I type, I realize that I didn’t factor in the long drives to and fro plus a lack of sufficient sleep. We live and learn.

Notes

Tadasana, Urdhva Hasatasana, Urdhva Baddanguliyasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana, Uttanasana, Supta Padangushtasana 1, 2, Vrikshasana, Ardha Chandrasana, Virabhadrasana 3, Uthita Hasta Padangushtasana, Garudasana, Urdhva Prasarita ek pada Uttanasana, Urdhva Prasarita Ek pada adho mukha Svanasana, Prone akunchanasana, Baddakonasana, Upavishtakonasana, Ardha Badda Padmottanasana, Vrikshasana, Wall Urdhva Prasarita Padasana

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.

Holiday Practice – Krounchasana

There is a story associated with the origin of the Ramayana. Sage Valmiki was enjoying an idyllic bath in the Tamasa river under a canopy of a Kadamba tree. There was a pair of Sarus Cranes in the midst of a Spring fuelled passion and the sage watched them with an indulgent smile. Out of the blue, an arrow came whizzing and pierced the male krouncha and his mate was distraught. Seeing the distress, he instinctively cursed the hunter in verse, supposedly the first Sanskrit verses to be composed in metre.

मा निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमः शाश्वतीः समाः । यत् क्रौञ्चमिथुनादेकमवधीः काममोहितम् ॥

Loosely translated, it reads- O Nishada, since you have killed one of the pair of kraunchas in the midst of love, you will never be permanently established anywhere.

The Sage was enamored by the way the verse flowed out of his mouth and couldn’t stop repeating it to himself. Later Brahma reveals his wish that Valmiki write the story of Rama.

All our epics, old stories and myths have a lush backdrop of flora and fauna, in their season and place. The krouncha has been variously identified as heron, demoiselle crane and Sarus Crane. The last though seems fitting considering the birds. Here’s a video about the tallest flying birds. This short snippet depicts the sarus cranes very beautifully. They are a species that has borne the brunt of loss of habitat like so many others but that is probably matter for elsewhere.

I’d initially thought of going through all standing poses by keeping time but it was simply too hot for such an active practice. So, forward extensions it was and I found myself in krounchasana, which is an infrequently touched asana. Contemplating the name of the asanas is useful as an exercise. Invoking the name invokes memory of the sensory experiencing of the object and often it does more for the asana that a detailed set of cues.  

Looking at Guruji’s picture, I admire not just the presentation but also the unwavering discipline he had in pursuing his passion. How many krounchasanas would he have done in his lifetime? I guess more than the how, it is really the why of his asana that we ought to enquire into as Prashantji says.

Holiday Practice – Sirsasana

Sirsasana and I have a very strange relationship. In my early days, I thought the pose was beyond my reach with a cervical issue. But then, it happened. And since then, it has been a tense relationship. I make progress and then have pause before restarting. Some days, it is effortless but most days, it is a struggle. I cannot stay for too long before the neck groans. This despite the constant ‘lift your shoulders’ refrain running in my head.

I need the grounding of standing poses and a lot of dorsal work before getting into a Sirsasana that I can hold for a reasonable period and if latest observations are taken into account, a fair bit of bound poses. I’ve been able to balance independently, get into multiple variations as well as lift into the pose with both legs straight yet there is no consistency in my mind about the pose. Every time, it is a wondering.

So, today was a Sirsasana practice. Short attempts, multiple attempts to learn, to fight that doubt and fear. The diagnosis was clear, more Sarvangasana. As I get older, I feel the loss of that grip in the body, a certain bewildered loosening. It is part of the ageing process and some days, it is more evident than others. The outsides don’t show it as much as the insides feel it. Hips, they age quicker, I think.

On one hand, there is a certain resignation but on the other, there is a fighting back, not against the decay of the body but the giving up of the mind. It is easy to slide. So, we get back, try different approaches, quite like trying to climb an inaccessible mountain. Nothing is lost, no attempt is futile as each brings its own revealing. What do I gain from this seemingly body centric practice? Perhaps a period of time completely engaged in a pursuit with no distraction. For that time, the constant chatter in the mind is channeled into absorption in the asana. While yoga is defined as chitta vritti nirodhaha, it is pertinent that atha yoganushasanam comes before the definition. In that sense, it is a constant beginning. Every. Single. Time.

Notes

Uttanasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana, Tadasana, Sirsasasana, Urdhva Prasarita Ekpadasana, Ek pada Sirsasana forward, Parighasana, Ek pad Sirsasana sideways, Bharadwajasana, Sarvangasana and variations, Savasana

Word of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.