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, 2010 and 2016 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!

May your practice flourish to benefit all beings!

Namate,
Karen

Posted in cleveland yoga, iyengar yoga, yoga, yoga cleveland | 4 Comments

The Many Forms of the Divine

In just two days, my time here will be over and I will be headed home. It has been an incredible month in so many ways. I have remained free of illness and injury. I have had lovely roommates and a wonderfully supportive place to stay. I have received fantastic guidance in the classes and done my best to apply those lessons in the practices. It is hard to sum up what has been learned or gained, since the effects of this immersion will continue to unfold for a long time to come.

I was thinking about how my practice needs to become more intense when I get home. I have gained strength, mobility, confidence and self-awareness during this month. Certain poses are coming better. Understanding of what it means to practice and how to engage with the material has deepened. I do not want to lose what I have gained! But how do I keep this all going once I return the duties of home life?

My thought is that I will have to be more disciplined with my time and that I will have to start working harder. What does it mean to work hard? When we “work hard” over time, difficult things may become easier. And when we “take it easy” we may find that challenging things are less difficult. Patanjali tells us that practitioners can be mild, moderate or intense. If the practitioner is intense, then the goal of yoga is near. Abhi explained that we misunderstand intensity to be “working hard” and “buckets of sweat.” Real intensity, she said, means working with greater and greater sensitivity. While in one way that is actually more challenging, it also seems more doable and productive than just gearing up to exert myself more and more.

Last weekend, I had a most enjoyable afternoon touring some of the temples of Pune. We visited a centuries old Shiva temple and cave carved out of solid rock. The OM I chanted within the cave resonated for several seconds after I stopped producing a sound, and it was goosebump inducing! We took in the energy and beauty of temples to Kali, Hanuman and Ganesh. We ended the afternoon at a Krishna festival, as it was Krishna’s birthday. Multicolored lights and huge animated displays created a colorful and festive atmosphere.

In the Indian culture, the Divine is depicted in many forms. Each deity has a different function, energy and areas of life over which they preside. The myriad forms of the Ultimate allow practitioners to work with the form that suits them or the form that is suited to their need at the time.

The subject of Iyengar Yoga also manifests in many forms, all leading us toward the goal of Self Realization. Abhi spoke to us about this shortly after our arrival. She said that our view of Iyengar Yoga might be limited to those particular aspects that we are attracted to, but that we might be missing the true breadth and depth of the subject.

Here are some of the ways I have been taught Iyengar Yoga during the month here at RIMYI!

  • Quick movement, jumping, exertion
  • Long, slow holding of poses
  • Many detailed instructions
  • One or two instructions that run through the entire class
  • Anatomical precision and explanation
  • Little or no instruction – silence
  • Metaphor and analogy
  • Graphic imagery of various geometric patterns on or within the body
  • Long rests in between exertions
  • Little or no rest
  • Comparative study – try things different ways and notice the different effects
  • Many props
  • No props
  • Leading with the body or the breath or the mind
  • Various configurations of body, breath and mind
  • Holding a pose for a set amount of time
  • Coming in and out of a pose as needed
  • Repeating the same pose many times, the same way or in different ways
  • Doing many different poses with no repetition
  • Activity: press, dig, hit, tuck, extend, reach, cut, lift, broaden
  • Receptivity: soften, recede, let go, release, relax

So all of that is Iyengar Yoga. This method supports us in our quest to become more open minded and versatile as we take the inward journey through the kosas. With all these approaches and more at our disposal, we have the tools we need to continue our growth through all the circumstances that life delivers to us.

I find that my appreciation for B.K.S. Iyengar, Geeta Iyengar, Prashant Iyengar, Sunita Iyengar, Abhi Iyengar, all the institute teachers and my teachers at home, just continues to grow and grow. I hope that I can take what they have given me and put it into practice, not only for my own sake, but also so I can become more helpful to others.

Thank you so much for being part of the yoga community. I will be happy to be back home soon!

In love and light,
Karen

Posted in cleveland yoga, iyengar yoga, karen allgire, yoga, yoga cleveland | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Container and Contents

In yoga philosophy, one way of looking at our existence is through the lens of the five kosas or sheaths. These are the anatomical, physiological, mental, intellectual and soul levels of our being. These layers move from the gross to the subtle and from the periphery to the core. Like nesting dolls or the layers of an onion, each sheath is the container for another layer within. The skeleton and the muscles are the outermost layer, creating our structure and our shape and providing a container for the other layers. The organs and fluids of the body create the next layer, and we could call this organic body the contents of the anatomical layer. B.K.S. Iyengar has written that the kosas are like a rainbow, with no clear cut delineation between the various sheaths. The organs of the nervous system, including the sensory organs, the brain and spinal cord and the nerve fibers, are part of the physiological body, but they closely touch the next layer – the mind and emotions. The final two layers are subtle and hard to comprehend – intuitive, discriminative intelligence, and the blissful state in which we perceive the soul.

The scheme of the kosas gives us a map for the inward journey. As the month is winding down and we enter our final week here, I find myself wondering just how much of the content I have received I can actually hold in my container. Another word for container or pot is kumbhak, which refers to retaining the breath in pranayama practice. If the pot is flawed, it cannot hold the contents placed inside it. In yoga practice, we carefully and diligently work to develop the health and vitality of the first two kosas – the outer and inner body – so that we have the physical energy, mental capacity and emotional stability to absorb, understand and integrate the profound teaching we are being given. Our container must be sound.

I am sure that the learning will continue to unfold over the months and years ahead. But for the moment, it is hard to take in the breadth of what has been given. There has been some time to reflect, but in general, I have been completely engaged with the requirements of each day. It will be interesting to see how the effects of this month carry over into my practice and teaching once I return home.

On Tuesday, August 20, the Institute celebrated the fifth Punyatithi or death anniversary of B.K.S. Iyengar. The hall was packed for a talk given by Prashant Iyengar entitled “Understanding Guruji.” The beautiful altar was adorned with flowers and there was a joyful feeling in the room of gratitude toward this great man who gave so much to his students. Prashant’s ability as a speaker is just fantastic. His insights into Guruji, his practice and his teaching were illuminating. I will do my best to summarize Prashant’s remarks, although I will say now that that is a difficult job. Prashant is eloquent, articulate and subtle. All mistakes in the following are my own, and any insight or truth is from Prashant.

Prashant first explained that even though Mr. Ieyngar had a very short time with his guru, that contact triggered the impressions (samskaras) of yoga within him. His energy level was super human. We have often heard that he worked “hard” and that is true. But we cannot really relate to what that means, because his capacity for work was super human. He was on a “high speed track.” Prashant said that Guruji’s ability was so far beyond that of even a developed practitioner, that it was like comparing the running capacity of an Olympic runner to that of a cheetah! 

Because his energy, intellect and practice were at such a high level, he could not actually teach what he practiced or what he knew. He had to teach what the students could practice. Prashant said that Guruji had a vivid imagination and he would devise ways for students to practice, even though he might never do those things himself. For example, Prashant said Guruji never practiced chair Shoulder Balance. That was invented for the benefit of the students. Even though Guruji did not teach what he practiced, it was from his practice that he derived what he should teach.

Prashant said that often, those who are great are not famous. Even more often, those who are famous are not great. Guruji had both greatness and fame. But the reasons he was famous were not the same as the reasons he was great. His true greatness could not be comprehended. He was famous for the most outward aspects of his work. But his true inner greatness could not really be understood by us. He had world wide acclaim for things that were not so important – the important things were hidden to the world. His contribution to the world and his contribution to yoga were two different things.

Prashant ended with a fantastic cosmic map, reminding us that within the vastness of the universe, the galaxy and the solar system, the earth is a speck, India is a speck and we ourselves are just specks of dust. If we primarily relate to the world, we are relating to the speck. The globe is a speck of dust in the vastness of the universe, but inside each of us is not just a universe, but a multiverse. Multi-million universes reside within us, and if we go inward, our journey will be on an astronomical scale. If we go inside, it all opens up for us.

So to know what B.K.S Iyengar was, who he was, and what was the nature of his greatness, we cannot turn to Google or Wikipedia or a biography. To know what Guruji was we will have to know yoga.

Wow – an amazing and mind opening talk! I hope we all continue to be inspired to take the inward journey and discover the vastness within ourselves, discovering all the layers within layers. As B.K.S. Iyengar took the journey inward through the kosas to experience freedom and beatitude, so should we do our best to take that journey as far as we are able. May your practice flourish!

In love and light,
Karen

Posted in cleveland yoga, iyengar yoga, karen allgire, yoga, yoga cleveland | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Looking, Watching and Seeing

On Sunday we celebrated my roommate’s birthday with a lovely lunch at the Royal Western India Turf Club – the racetrack! The beautiful facility had marble columns, plants and greenery, and a sprawling veranda overlooking a lush lawn and the track. It was not a race day, so the atmosphere was calm and casual. It was a pleasure to enjoy a lovely summer day with friends!

In the surrounding gardens, I was struck by this incredibly beautiful plant. I don’t know its name, but its shape, color and energy were wonderful to behold. It is a delight to experience a form of beauty that is unknown to us. There is a freshness in our perception that brings us into the present.

My experience here at RIMYI continues to be fantastic. The days are full and I have to make choices about what is enough and what is too much activity. There are always more classes to observe and it is tempting to overdo, but I feel I have found a good balance.

One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of this month is the opportunity to assist in the remedial class. This is the class is for students who have various issues that could not be easily addressed in the regular classes. Students may have skeleto-muscular problems such as neck, shoulder, back or knee pain, or they may have more complicated complaints. Sometimes students with similar issues work together as a group, and sometimes each student does their own sequence. The Institute teachers are there to help and guide the students and their knowledge and compassion is inspiring! Foreign senior teachers also take responsibility for assisting the students. Teachers like myself who are newer to helping are given more basic jobs, and the RIMYI teachers are ever watchful to see that we are doing our work properly!

The Institute teachers have been extremely generous and helpful in training us in how to help the students. I may be asked to guide a student through a pose for shoulder and neck pain, for example. As I assist the student, a RIMYI teacher may come and correct me, so that my touch or prop use is more helpful to the student. Or it may be that I watch the RIMYI teacher work, and she then asks me to to the adjustment. We then ask the student, does it feel the same? I feel that the Institute teachers truly care that the visiting teachers are educated to better help those who come to us once we return home.

Depending on the ratio of students to Institute teachers in a given class, there may be more or less work for us as helpers to do. In that case, we fetch props when asked and we observe. This observation has been interesting, educational and rewarding. I notice that the RIMYI teachers first get the student into the basic shape of the pose, using a standard set up for their condition, perhaps with some modifications for their specific situation. Then they watch. Watching is different from looking. We look “at” something. We take a “quick look.” We look here and there. But watching takes place over time in a state of relaxed attentiveness. I have seen many examples this month of a teacher quietly watching a student. The instructor notices the student’s eyes, their skin color, their throat, their abdomen and and their breath. If something is hard or tense, the teacher either changes the props, or instructs the student with words and touch, or both. It is all based on seeing what the student is actually doing and experiencing, and not on a formula for what you give a student who has this or that condition. 

The quality of the attention that these teachers give their students is beautiful to behold. The subtlety of what they can see is an education. Little by little, class by class, I am able to perceive more. With a quietly attentive mind, watching can turn into seeing, which then hopefully leads to understanding. This attentive seeing is rather challenging, as the environment in the hall is very lively. RIMYI teachers call out for the next item they need. Helpers run to the props closet to get a required item. The whole room is busy, with constant movement of students, teachers and helpers, yet each student is being guided through a refined and progressive sequence. Behind the apparent chaos there is order. I find that this process of watching and seeing is helping me understand fundamental actions and directions of movement that would help any student, not just those with ailments.

Assisting in these classes is the most draining part of my week. I have to be attentive and ready to help at all times. I have to make ongoing judgements about when to step in and when to hang back. There is a lot of bending and holding and pressing and picking up and carrying. Adjusting students is strong physical work. Yet the RIMYI teachers are there again, to show us how to help the student without straining ourselves. It is fantastic to recognize how the healing work done by B.K.S. Iyengar and Geeta Iyengar has been transmitted to the RIMYI teachers, and how they are doing their best to transmit some some part of it to us. It is our job as teachers to catch as much as we can.

I take notes, discuss the classes with my colleagues and do my best to absorb the information. There is always much that I cannot grasp, but I am not feeling greedy. I feel satisfied each day that I have done what I can, learned what I can and absorbed what I can. My hope is that the new learning will be integrated in such a way that it continues to support my growth, and also allows me to grow in my ability to help others.

In love and light,
Karen

Posted in cleveland yoga, iyengar yoga, karen allgire, yoga, yoga cleveland | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

How Do We Practice?

Today is August 15, Indian Independence Day. The institute is closed, providing a nice break from our intense studies. This marks the halfway point of my visit.

The classes have been wonderful, illuminating the subject of yoga and asking me to go beyond my perceived limits. I am having two different types of experience, sometimes within a few minutes! On one side is the joy of discovery, the excitement of learning new techniques and the fun of doing things I have never tried. I have been inspired to practice deeply, working with the guidance of the amazing teachers here. New understanding and a deeper commitment to learning seem to be developing naturally. But as I look more directly at myself and my practice, many limitations and challenges also reveal themselves with renewed clarity. It seems that we can’t have new awareness of how to grow without also having new awareness of our difficulties. So right along with the positive feelings of inspiration and motivation, the work has also shone a mirror on my chronic pains, assymetries, and limitations in my strength, stamina and mobility. Seeing these things more clearly has led me at times to feel uncomfortable, stuck, crooked and humbled. Clarity is clarity. If you are going to look, you have to be willing to see what is there.

So I have been reflecting on how to stay cheerful and positive in the face of the limitations that are so much more obvious to me here. Abhi could have been reading my mind in the class the other day. We were working deeply and she was asking us to search for more. The mind revolts and starts looking for reasons not to continue.

“Can’t she see that I am already at my limit?”

“Why did I not start yoga at an earlier age?“

“This is too hard for me.”

“My body is not made for this pose.”

“Why am I still so stiff and still so crooked?”

“Why am I doing this anyway?”

The egoic mind can come up with a thousand reasons not to continue, or to remain within a limited range of what we already consider doable for ourselves. While these thoughts will undoubted arise, hopefully, we don’t allow ourselves to dwell in the mire of negativity. The yogic mind can come in to say, in the words of B.K.S. Iyengar “What can I do today? Let me find out.”

This emphasis on inquiry in the present moment is an almost instant cure for the thoughts that drag us down, fill us with doubt or cause us to lose heart. This is a major theme of Prashant’s classes. As long as we are primarily engaged in “doing” we will become obsessed with our limitations as we strive to get it right, resulting in a perfectionism that does not lead us to a true experience of yoga. If instead we participate with ourselves, examining what we are doing, why we are doing it and how we are doing it, a whole different mindset emerges. We may still work harder than we thought we could. We may still experience limitations. But the mindset is completely engaged with observation and learning and we become immersed in the moment. 

For example, while doing Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose) one might choose to focus on a single action, such as pressing the thighs back. Using that single action as a dharana (concentration) point, one could observe the various effects that stem from that single action. How does pressing the thighs back effect the heels, or the length of the trunk, or the weight on the arms? This exploration is limitless. One might then shift the examination slightly to ask what helps me press the thighs back? What keeps me from pressing the thighs back? Working in this way reveals layers and layers of learning and information that cannot be discovered any other way. Another important aspect of working this way is using the breath as the focus. So in any pose, one could explore what happens to the pose with deeper than usual exhalations. What happens to the arms, legs, trunk, spine, sense organs when I exhale further and further? This type of work almost completely eliminates considerations such as ”Am I getting it?” or “Is it improving?” or “Am I doing well?” These are questions asked by the ego, and the ego will never be satisfied with the answers.

When we engage with the process instead of craving outcomes, the entire experience of what we call “doing yoga” changes to “learning yoga.” Prashant explained that when participation, observation and learning are the priority, concerns about “getting it right” drop away. Paradoxically, it is being in this more yogic state that allows us to go beyond what we thought we could do.

Prashant is fantastic with analogies. He said that if someone else cleans our house, it is not the same as if we do it ourselves. We know where we like things to be put and how we like things to be done. If someone else rearranges our furniture, we feel disoriented. If we rearrange our own furniture, we feel renewed. Similarly, when we work deeply in asana, we are rearranging, repositioning, cleaning and washing our cells. Holding our poses while doing our investigations can bring about this cleansing and reorganizing effect, bringing a deep sense of refreshment and renewal.

When looked at from this broader perspective, problems, limits and difficulties matter less. What matters is that we practice, as Patanjali says in Sutra I:14, with continuity, alertness and devotion over a long period of time. 

With love and light,
Karen

Posted in cleveland yoga, iyengar yoga, karen allgire, yoga, yoga cleveland | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments