For the longest time, yoga was a solitary pursuit. It still is but over the last year or so, there has been a steady sense of community, fellowship or sangha. It has different shapes whether in joint learning with our teachers, reading or practising together, exchanging life experiences, yoganusasanam and so on. My first taste of that sense of a common thread of connection was via this blog where I made the acquaintance of some wonderful people I think of as a virtual sangha. Some of them don’t write anymore, others not as often. I’m guilty of the same. Life can get busy but when I start to think that I remember Suzy who diligently posts everyday!. Yet another face of that connection has been through WhatsApp messages and calls with fellow practitioners across the world. If it were not for a wired world, I wouldn’t have been introduced to these lovely people. Occasionally, such connections spill into the real world and they are just as warm. Yoga unites. Maitri is both a practice and its fruit.
This morning, I had the pleasure of spending some time with one such friend. We walked around in the botanical gardens, saw an old temple, had some street food and chai, all simple delights. Another one of yoga’s gifts. It was also a very welcome break in a hectic month. I wasn’t able to go on my walks and getting a pocket of leisure was much needed. Sharing a few pictures from this morning. Now, it’s back to the grind for another few days before the routine of the academic year sets in.
As we were winding down for the academic year in April, I was looking forward to leisurely practice and perhaps even blogging about it like I did last year but life had some very different plans. I ended up teaching a few classes, practising with a couple of others a few times but the bigger chunk of my time was spent on home and hearth in unexpected ways. The highlight has been a separate pranayama practice. Fledgling. But quite fascinating. Always something different.
May has been interesting to observe from an off the mat perspective. There have been layers and nuances of heaviness but the steadfastness of yoga kept things on an even keel. I’ve accomplished more… it seems odd to say I’ve accomplished when it has really been more of a coming together of things in the mysterious and effortless ways of the universe. My work was simply showing up which I did but all the rest just happened.
I missed the break of a holiday month but also can’t wait for June and another academic year. The schedule will get a bit more packed but it is a gift to be able to spend so much time steeped in study and service.
Reading has been mostly single chapters that are complete in themselves from Astadala Yogamala or then Yog Sarvansathi. My Marathi is getting better as I attempt some translation as well to make sense of the chapters. The class I teach needs me to instruct in Hindi as well as English and it makes for a lot of smiles at my funny sounding Hindi. The folks there are happy to provide translation for words I may not know. I remember Guruji had written or mentioned somewhere how difficult it was to find the right words in a language alien to him. It gave me pause at that time. Here was a young boy who spoke Kannada and Tamil and had to quickly get proficient in Marathi, English and Hindi. He went on to write so many books in an acquired language. It would be interesting to hear him speak in Kannada, teach in Kannada. The vernacular in India is rich and makes the rendering of so many things multihued.
The language of one’s living changes the longer one spends in yoga and I don’t mean simply an asana practice. The shift is so gradual that one doesn’t realize when things are no longer the same. Daily living changes, fellowship happens, study takes on deeper involvement. I can now appreciate better the karma, jnana, bhakti progression that is a direct result of abhyasa. In some respects, it is strange, this sense of devotion I feel while not being religious. It is piggybacking on one man’s sadhana and that has been more than sufficient to keep this sadhaka going.
December was intense, packed to capacity. Yet it didn’t feel like a blur but just a full measure of itself. It was a month of a 2 week intensive over and above regular classes, volunteer work, a couple of out of town trips, some personal upheaval and a new experience of reading with someone. M and I have been reading Light on Life. Aloud. The last time something like this happened was in school when the teachers would make us read in turns. This has been a great exercise in more ways than one. The nature of these readings is different, slower, in smaller portions and in the light of lived experience, more nuanced. It is much richer for the exchange of experience, interpretation and questions that arise. Consequently, much of my earlier readings have surfaced in context to the experience of yoga today and I have been re-reading them. We read in person or online everyday and it is something I look forward to. The book is an all-time favourite and I am delighted when she finds joy in its words.
While it seems like all the work we do as yoga practitioners is physical, the bulk of yoga really is in the mess and muddle of living our day to day lives. This book is a beautiful exploration of yoga beyond the mat and I read it cover to cover at least once a year. It is also one which sees a generous dipping into whenever I need a shot in the arm. Open up any page and there is something that speaks to you.
As I assist in classes and therapy sessions or then sub for a teacher, I see myself in the struggles of other bodies. Outwardly, I seem all put together but on the mat, there is a dance of making space and pushing boundaries. The changing vagaries of a woman’s physiology make time on the mat a practice of surrender. I don’t know what the day will bring and have to listen to the body’s needs. That is a separate post in itself. It is good abhyasa to prepare for life as someone growing older and heading towards the next phase. Considering the intensive, practice was not possible with the classes we were doing but now there is a routine back in place. Practice in the hall has been good as there is so much to learn, from the teachers of course but also in being helped by and helping one’s peers.
Since it is the turn of the year, it is also habitual to reflect on the year that has passed and think about the one that is an yet to be born. Right at the start, Covid and unemployment hit. Workwise, it has been a lacklustre year although I managed to keep afloat. But, somewhere there was a firm faith that I would receive what I needed and that is exactly what happened. Asana practice was a mix of progress, slowing down, changing track. As someone with many problem areas, it is both a blessing and sometimes a mild frustration. Blessing because there is time spent in basic actions, working slowly and gaining a sensitivity that might not have been there otherwise. It also helps me when I have to help someone else. Mid year saw the reopening of RIMYI, offline classes and a gradual change of my role there. It took me time to inhabit this role. At year’s end, I belong. And I remain fascinated by how one man created such a tremendous wealth of wisdom in his lifetime. His children, grand children, teachers and students carry on the legacy and listening to them, learning from them is precious.
Yoga has always been there as the path to walk on but I didn’t think it would choose me. I kept looking over my shoulder thinking that it could not possibly be calling me. But, as everything else fell off by the way side and I stood alone, it was impossible to not see that it was really harking to me. I’m content and my heart feels filled to the brim with the shape of my life. Studentship and service is a good place to be. I would like to add another day of practice in the hall in the coming year and work with renewed vigour on the texts. Signing off with one of the aha moments from a recent pranayama class which really stayed with me, “Penetration happens from the back body”.
Subbed a class yesterday. While I was nervous to begin with, once I saw the little boxes with bent elbows and knees, my mind forgot to be nervous and it was simply a matter of transmitting the message of straightness that was required in the limbs during the asanas. The more time I spend in classes, whether as a participant or observer, I am mesmerized by how extensive and intensive the entire system is. What appears simple on the surface is actually fathoms deep. All we see are waves and like children, splash happily on the shore but the giants of the oceans live in its depths.
It is when one looks at asanas with alignment and those without the symmetry and elegance that one begins to see discipline in its external form. Internally, there is more cohesiveness in the entire embodiment. The body, breath and mind lose its scatteredness and come together. But it takes time and a lot of frustration in the early days. And there is really no alternative but to do. Repeatedly until the rigidity is transformed into something malleable through which energy can flow naturally. These were concepts that I comprehended cerebrally but experiencing them happened in its own time.
Over the years, this blog has traced a squiggly path that I’ve found myself on. It has been a witness to progress and setbacks, life altering changes and study. Most of the time, I’ve stopped and marked the passage in some fashion. There were phases when I withdrew and periods of prolificacy, also markers in themselves of the changes along the way. Last night, I was thinking about how my journey in yoga actually began much before I stepped into the class. About 12-13 years ago, there was a period of searching. I found myself reading the epics of this land which provided the stepping stone to picking up the Gita and later the Upanishads. I read and was mesmerized by their sheer poetry. I think my fascination was really the language and its power as the concepts they spoke about were complex even though the words were simple.
All I wished then was to have a Guru, a real one. I was told that I would find one in my late 30s. I did but it was not quite how I imagined. I found my Guru, the year he left his embodiment. His words reached me through his students and disciples, his books and most of all the subjective experience of his teachings. If I had to look at my studentship, it needs more but I’ve made my peace with my pace. There is no goal as such, simply the chipping away. Changes happen over time but what we all have is just what is right in front of us at any moment. It is only when I look back that I see what a wonderful gift it is. I suppose the first word of the first sutra says it best. Atha. No past, no future. Just the infinity of now. Asanas are a way to experience that.
Guruji was a force, whose presence breathed energy into those he came in contact with. He lived and taught in a time when yoga was not a multi billion dollar industry. Almost a century after his life, yoga is ubiquitous and there is more than enough information about asanas, anatomy and physiology, pranayama, philosophy etc. that is widely available. It is a mass product and packaged as such. In the context of these times, his teachings blaze even brighter through the legacy of those who lived and learned directly from him. Yoga beyond asana and pranayama, what Prashantji speaks of as essential yog or classical yog.
We are lucky to live in this millennium when such wisdom is also available for those who may be so inclined. I remember an event at the institute when he shared an incident from his life. As students of teachers who have been with Guruji over decades and especially in his last years, there is a rich, distilled ocean of wisdom and we benefit from that generosity. His sadhana was one of such rigour and tenacity that it paved an easier way for us. In the course of sifting through material, I look at pictures of Guruji in various moments of his life and am struck by his incredible joy, sheer elegance and artistry, softness and vitality. Truly a giant.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.