Welcome to Karen’s Yoga Blog!

I am delighted to share my thoughts and discoveries about the art, science and philosophy of Iyengar Yoga. Visit this blog for ideas about practice, notes from workshops with senior Iyengar Yoga teachers, and reflections about how yoga can help and support us in the art of living.

You can also check the August 2008 and August 2010 archives for entries about my visits to the Ramamani Iyengar Yoga Institute (RIMYI) for yoga study with the Iyengar family in Pune, India.

Thanks for visiting!

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The Virtue of Yoga, The Yoga of Virtue

When you ask people why they started doing yoga, a few common responses emerge. Most often, students simply want to feel better. The body feels stiff or achy, weak or imbalanced. Some people have injuries or ailments and have heard that yoga can help. Many turn to yoga as a way to manage the strain and stress of life, and to learn how to relax, both physically and mentally. Yoga may help us to sleep better, improve our posture, up our tennis game or manage our moods. The list of ways that yoga helps is endless.

But how many of us took up the practice of yoga as a means of developing a more virtuous life?

This question occurred to me as I was reading an article by Prashant Iyengar. He states that in today’s general approach to yoga, there is hardly any emphasis on the “philosophy of the conduct of life.” In ancient times, Prashant asserts that the meaning of yoga was understood to be the study of how to live a meaningful and ethical life. It is the very essence of yoga to provide a philosophical foundation to guide our life choices and help us develop virtuous qualities within ourselves.

As Prashant has stated many times, “Asanas are not yoga. Asanas are for yoga.” They are method, not goal. But we so easily mistake the means for the end. Yamas, niyamas, aasana, pranayama and all the limbs of yoga are techniques to lead us to the essential truth of who we are, to help us become free of ignorance and to end our perpetual cycles of dissatisfaction and suffering. While these goals may seem far away, we can shift our orientation. We can proceed from an understanding that yoga is fundamentally concerned with providing a philosophy for how to conduct our lives, and for helping us develop our virtues so we can live up to our own ethical aspirations.

The practice of yoga both requires and develops virtue. By virtue, I mean those universal, abiding qualities that make life good – kindness, clarity, gratitude and serenity. When we progress with our yogic practices, we may find that some virtuous qualities are slowly developing. They may be tender shoots of patience, discipline and thoughtfulness, but the roots are firm. If we continue to water and care for these tender shoots, they may grow into hearty plants of generosity, compassion and truthfulness. Iyengar Yoga encourages us to practice with these qualities, so that developing consciousness becomes the primary goal.

In Light on Life, B.K.S. Iyengar writes, “A virtuous asana is done from the heart and not the head.” He says that the “organ of virtue” or the conscience is situated in the heart. When we bring awareness to the heart region, the brain become calm and awareness and intelligence spread to our whole being. In this way, Mr. Iyengar explains that our practices must be done with the right intention, not for ego or to impress, but as a way to continue our journey inward to the core of our being.

If I keep in mind that my practices are to develop my inner qualities, it changes my orientation. I may work just as diligently to achieve a new pose, or to improve a well-known one, but knowing that the pose is the method and not the goal helps me remain detached from outcomes. This point of view frees me from concerns about my limits and difficulties, since the purpose of the practice is not perfect poses, but to live a virtuous life, and to develop qualities that transcend this life.

In the fourth chapter of his Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali says that when the path of yoga is complete, a stream of virtue descends upon us as if from a rain-cloud of virtue, pouring down like torrential rain. Until that day comes, we can consciously practice yoga as a way to live a more wholesome, compassionate and connected life, for the benefit of ourselves and all those around us.

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Transformation

IMG_0220In just a few hours I will head for the airport and begin the long journey home. Today I feel mixed emotions – joyous anticipation of seeing my husband and friends, and sadness at leaving this place of pilgrimage. I have discovered new depths within myself and experienced fresh possibilities for my continued growth. Learning and practicing yoga here at RIMYI brings intensity of action and awareness. I have worked strongly and can feel the changes in my body and my breath. At the same time, I became relaxed and mindful here, and found that my practice had a quietness that I have not felt before now.

Especially due to the brilliant teaching of Prashant Iyengar, I have had glimmers of what it is like to keep the mind steadily placed on one thing, whether it is a place in the body, a particular quality of breath, a sense organ or a Sanskrit vowel. I am reminded of an aphorism from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Sutra I:32, which states:

IMG_0147Adherence to single-minded effort prevents the impediments to the mastery of the inner self.

I recognize that at home, my practice is usually far from “single minded.” While I may do my sequence of asanas and work with physical effort and clarity, my mind often remains distracted and cluttered with the demands of daily life or my own conflicted emotions. I realize that my practice lacks depth because I have not been disciplining my mind to fully engage in whatever asana or practice I am doing. The irony, of course, is that proceeding this way is more work and less effective, because of the lack of presence.

Through the month of study here, I have had glimpses of presence. Moments of relaxed awareness that help me understand what is to be done and how to do it. Prashant said that observation guides intuitive action. When we become silent and fully engaged with one single focus – one action, one idea –  the surface of the mind comes to a restful state and we can access the deeper intelligence that shows us how to proceed. This is the key to true transformation.

My prayer is that I can continue to practice with a quiet awareness and focus even amidst the busy tumult of my daily life. B.K.S. Iyengar was a householder, husband and father. He gave us a shining example of being able to achieve the heights of yoga while still experiencing worldly life. Here in the hall of the Iyengar Institute, the teachers and the teaching inspire us to go inward. I look forward to the joyful challenge of bringing this approach home to my own little yoga room.

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Celebration and Integration

IMG_0140The final week of my time here has begun. The last span of days has been so full of learning it is difficult to sum it up. The classes have been fantastic. Deep insights into inversions with Sunita, one of Mr. Iyengar’s daughters. Revealing pranayama with Rajlakshmi, a long time institute teacher. Clarity and precision in the rope work with Golnaz, another experienced RIMYI teacher. And invigorating backbends with Abhijata, Mr. Iyengar’s granddaughter. This is true wealth – the wealth of knowledge and experience. It is clear that I can only absorb a small portion of what is being given. At a feast, we cannot taste every dish or we become ill. So I am digesting what I can, knowing that through future practice, more will be revealed.
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Saturday night was BKS Iyengar’s second “punyatithi” meaning the anniversary of his death. The hall was decorated and the red carpet rolled out for this auspicious occasion. Images of BKS and Ramamani Iyengar and Patanjali were garlanded with flowers, and the hall was decorated with images of Guruji and more flowers. We were invited to put on our finery and  gather to pay homage to this great man.

We were delighted that Geeta Iyengar gave an interview, responding to questions submitted during the previous week. Geeta has been suffering from ill health, but she was in good spirits. Her mind was sharp and her memory clear as she shared yogic wisdom and stories of Guruji’s life.

IMG_0159After the interview, we had the opportunity to give our salutations and respect to Guruji, taking turns to bow to golden sculptural images of his feet, garlanded with yellow marigolds. This evening was also the book release for two new works, Light on Yoga in Marahti, the native language of this area, and a new book, Beloved Guruji, based on stories and recollections from his students. We then flowed downstairs to purchase our books, have them signed by Geetaji and Prashantji if we wished, and to enjoy some prasad. “Prasada” literally means a gracious gift. It denotes an edible food that is first offered to a deity or master and then distributed to be enjoyed. The prasada is considered to have blessing residing within it.

IMG_0141So that brings me back to digestion! How can we digest such a rich meal? How can we integrate teachings that are so profound and vast, while also being rooted in practicality and common sense? Only through our regular, attentive and devoted practice can we receive the nourishment that this yoga has to give us.

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Obstacles and New Beginnings

IMG_0093Monday August 15 was Indian Independence Day and a holiday from classes at the institute. It felt good to have a day off for rest and integration right in the middle of the month. My flat mate and I took the opportunity to visit Sarasbaug Ganesh Temple.

Ganesh is the elephant faced god who removes obstacles, especially obstacles to our spiritual growth. This deity may be invoked at the beginning of new endeavors. Ganesh is associated with the root chakra and the qualities of stability and security, while also revealing the potential for transformation.

 

IMG_0078The Sarasbaug Ganesh Temple was a wonderful place to visit on a sunny day in Pune. The area surrounding the temple was like a carnival, with rides for children, street food and vendors selling flowers, coconuts and sweets to be offered to Ganesh. Inside the temple gates, there were lush lawns, ponds with lotus flowers, and more vendors selling balloons, toys and novelties. It was lovely to see so many families enjoying their holiday in an area that combined the features of a park and a church.

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Inside the temple, we circumambulated (reverentially walked around the deity image) the main shrine and made our offerings. I had the chance to become quiet and focus on my intentions for obstacles I hope to have removed from my life. We then visited the amazing Ganesh museum that held literally hundreds of images of the elephant faced god, in many forms, sizes and materials.

Back at RIMYI today, I find that my practice continues to deepen. I notice that small, nagging injuries that I have had for some time are gradually melting away. Windows are opening to both new and familiar poses that challenge me. Being in the yoga hall brings a state of calm awareness that helps the practice penetrate in a new way.

One new aspect of this trip is that I am assisting in the medical class. This remedial class is for those with various injuries and ailments, as the Iyengars have developed protocols for numerous problems. As the students do their sequences on their own or in small groups, the Indian teachers and other senior teachers guide and adjust them with some support from teachers like myself. I was nervous about this part of my work here, and consulted several senior teachers at home about what to expect and how to behave. During the first week, there was a lot of watching. We were told to stand and that if our help was needed, we would be asked. During that first week, felt anxious to do something. I was there to learn and to be useful. Sometime during the second week, I realized that I was grasping – that I wanted to get something. I was trying to acquire knowledge and techniques like a collector. It struck me that my real purpose there was not to get something, but to serve the students. Once I made that crucial attitude adjustment, the work in the medical class changed its tone for me. From a more humble and student-oriented point of view, of course it is going much better!

IMG_0110 (1)Life here is stripped down in such a way that it is easier to observe myself and identify where I may be going wrong. I am hoping to keep in mind the basic tenet of knowing what is to be cultivated and what is to be discarded. Every day has its obstacles, and every day is also a new beginning.

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