Learning to Move and Learning to Stay

On Tuesday we had a special opportunity to observe Prashant Iyengar teaching a group of local Indian students. As always, Prashant asked the students to consider the relationship between the body, breath and mind, and the infinite possible configurations between these three components of our being. In the classes I have taken with Prashant, he generally does not teach the technical aspects of asana. Instead he has us hold the poses as he guides us to explore our consciousness. He might suggest a way of approaching the breath, describe the use of graphic imagery, or ask us to place our attention on an energy center (cakra) or on a seed syllable (bija). These techniques take us beyond body consciousness and help us to cultivate, sensitize and educate ourselves in a fuller and deeper way. 

Therefore, it was a big surprise to hear him teaching this group with precise technical points of action n the asanas. It was fantastic to see how he integrated his usual teaching style with specific instructions. For example, he taught that in Warrior III Pose (Virabhadrasana III) the foot had to lengthen from the ankle to the tarsals, from the tarsals to the metatarsals, and from the metatarsals to the toes. The entire foot was to be animated and cultured. He said that the foot should become so beautiful that someone would fall in love with it! This he called a unique kind of pedicure that should especially apply to our inverted poses.

While providing these useful techniques for “how to do the pose” he also worked with effort and timing in the poses. Prasahant explained that sometimes we have to “swipe the will card” and go for tenacity, volition, intensity, duration and forbearance in our poses. Only in this way can we access the cells that are usually dormant. Normally, we only use the cells that are bubbling with enthusiasm, but if we stay for a longer hold, dormant cells will come to life and be invited to participate.

For example, the class did long hold of Camel Pose (Ustrasana). Prashant instructed the group to take the shoulder blades into the back fully, intensely and strongly. Then, when they felt they had nothing left, they were to search for more. He said that at the point where we feel have nothing left, that is really where the “doing” begins. At the point when we are running out of energy and power, then we should keep going. As he put it, “The doing really starts when you can no longer do it.” Prashant explained that taking that step is so important, for that is when we “swipe the will card.” When duration and intensity come together, we will be calling in the reserve forces, and sending a requisition for more cells to engage.

After the class, Abhi led a discussion about her concern that this aspect of Iyengar Yoga – intensity combined with duration – was being lost. She asked how many of us had held Intense Extension Pose (Uttanasana) for ten minutes. Not many hands went up. Raya said that we could not simply have a fixed amount of time in mind and be satisfied with that. We should ask ourselves more often to go the extra mile with our timings.

Having received this reminder, I thought that perhaps we would take long timings in Abhi’s class the next morning. Of course I was completely wrong – we did jumpings! We jumped through many repetitions from Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) to various standing poses. This led us toward arm balances. The class was quick and playful, while still containing many technical gems for our education. It was wonderful to see the way Abhi and Raya work together, Abhi instructing, Raya demonstrating and occasionally explaining as well. They are an effective team!

Abhi explained that whatever we tend to like is what we will practice, and that is what we will think Iyengar Yoga is. If we like holding, we will hold, and that is what we will think Iyengar Yoga is. If we like moving, we will move, and that is what we will think Iyengar Yoga is. But Iyengar Yoga includes both of these aspects and so much more. We need to see that we are practicing and teaching the full breadth of the subject.

It takes will power to jump and move quickly with energy and alertness. It takes will power to stay in a pose for a long period of time with awareness and steadiness. We gravitate to the middle ground of our own comfort zone, wherever that may lie on the continuum between quick action and sustained holding. We need to observe our own propensities, and then strive to get out of the middle ground and experience the whole gamut of what practice can be.

I am joyfully and passionately engaged in studying jazz piano and singing from the great American Songbook. (I am having a fabulous time here, but I do miss my piano!) When I am working on a new arrangement, my teacher often comments that I am not using the whole keyboard, but instead staying within a safe and comfortable range. He reminds me that I need to explore the high and low tones, and create more variety, texture and interest in the musical expression. Similarly in our yoga practice, we can explore using the whole “keyboard” of approaches to practice, deepening our learning and opening up to new possibilities of movement and stillness.

In love and light,

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The Room Where It Happened

Here in Pune, we haven’t seen the sun in days. The rain is relentless. But the sun of yoga is shining brightly! There is so much learning happening at such a pace that it is difficult to choose what to write about!

One thing that stands out is my recognition that my practice at home has little comparison to the way I am practicing here. Here I am steadier, more focused, calmer. I am both willing and able to hold poses for a longer time. I am more aware of my breath and my mind, rather than relating primarily to my body. I am more sensitive to my asymmetries and able to work with them more productively.

So it occurs to me to consider the reasons why this contrast is so profound. I have been fortunate to train with excellent teachers who have guided me well, and I do my best to practice well. But in this environment, some vibrant combination of awareness, motivation, inspiration, concentration, interest, participation and aliveness has been awakened within me!

The most obvious or outer level of this enhanced mode of practice is due simply to my freedom from other duties and distractions. Having no other obligations, yoga is the central focus of every day. I feel extremely fortunate to have this opportunity to prioritize yoga for  whole month! Another layer is the influence of being surrounded by a group of dedicated practitioners, each person striving to penetrate the depths of this profound subject. Their alert, intelligent and devoted practice creates an atmosphere conducive to practice. Another huge factor is the incredible teaching we receive each day from Abhi, Prashant, Sunita and all the institute teachers. Each class is full of treasure, and I feel very wealthy as I receive instruction from this amazing yoga family. It lifts me up, opening my mind and body to fresh experiences and new understanding.

While receiving teaching of this caliber is fantastic, Prashant also repeatedly reminds us that everything we need is within us. Yoga is integral to who we are. But we have to wake up to its possibilities and get educated on how to access what lies within.

Perhaps the biggest influence of all is the invisible one – the energy of the practice hall where B.K.S. Iyengar and Geeta Iyengar taught and practiced for decades. The vibration of their presence is palpable and I feel it continue to guide everyone who comes here. As Lin Manuel Miranda wrote in Hamilton, we are “in the room where it happened” and it is fantastic to be here!

The photo in this post is really a photo of a photo. Since my last trip here, this large scale image of B.K.S. Iyengar has been installed on the second floor of the outside of the family home, facing the institute. The photo is huge, spanning the whole second level of the house. Guruji stands upright, looking right into the windows to the practice hall. It feels as if his watchful gaze is upon us, reminding us to take the journey inward toward profound awareness, and blessing us with his grace.

With love and light,

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What Is To Be Done? What Is To Be Discarded?

Greetings from Pune, India! I am happy to report that all is well as I begin my month of studies at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Institute (RIMYI.) While I encountered several daunting obstacles in the two weeks before my departure, the travel here was extremely smooth and I have settled into my routine almost seamlessly. I am grateful to be staying at my usual apartment, where my host, my roommates and the environment are helpful and supportive. I have already established a wonderful daily routine and I am feeling fantastic.

As many of you know, the RIMYI daily schedule for visiting students usually includes an asana class, personal practice time in the hall, optional observation of classes, and the opportunity to assist in the remedial class for students with various issues. So far, I am pacing myself well. One of the great benefits of being here is having the chance to give deep and regular attention to self care. I have time for yoga and pranayama in the early morning, followed by tea, chanting and sutra study. (Thanks and kudos to Leslie Freyberg for her fantastic recording of the Yoga Sutras, which is my study companion every morning.) Then a small breakfast and off to class or practice. I return home around noon to a freshly cooked, delicious meal! The afternoon may include writing notes, errands and brief a nap before returning to RIMYI for the late afternoon or evening classes. Then a light supper, tea, reading and an early bedtime. This regular daily schedule is a huge blessing, as it allows me to get into a rhythm that supports my studies.

The classes I have taken so far have been fantastic. The teaching is clear, challenging and insightful. It was immediately clear that I have much more capacity than I normally use! I do my best to practice well on my own, but being in these high caliber classes invites me to find out how much deeper I can go. There are so many layers of information to absorb, and I feel very open to receiving all I can while I am here. Freed from the everyday concerns of work, home and family, I am at liberty to practice, to study and to go inward. It is clear to me that at home, I gravitate toward entertainment, whereas here, I gravitate toward yoga. At home, the various stresses of work and householder life are such that I crave relief via reading novels, watching television  or distracting myself on my phone. While these activities have their place, it is easier to see from a distance what a hold these everyday entertainments have on me. That said, I am currently reading a novel and I have enjoyed some music on YouTube, but the pull to do these things is less, the time I give to them is less, and the impulse to practice or study yoga is greater. The gravity is different here, and I am pulled toward practice like iron to a magnet.

The freedom to do daily philosophy studies is a great joy to me. In Yoga Sutra I:27, Patanjali explains that as we develop on the spiritual path, what has to be done is done, and what has to be discarded is discarded. This made me think of the two wings of practice (abhyasa) and detachment (vairagya.) Abhyasa is our repeated application of what we have learned, while vairagya is letting go of everything that could get in the way of the learning process. As B.K.S. Iyengar writes in his introduction to Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, “Abhyasa builds confidence and refinement in the process of culturing the consciousness, whereas vairagya is the elimination of whatever hinders progress and refinement.” Though I have been here less than a week, I am experiencing new layers of physical, mental and emotional engagement. At the same time, I feel layers of physical, mental and emotional tension dropping away. What needs to be done? What needs to be discarded? I think these can be guiding questions for my stay.

I am thinking of you – my yoga teachers, yoga colleagues and yoga students, my friends and family. You are all close to me in my heart. As I make this journey, I feel your love and your support every day. Thank you for all you have done to help me get here!

Sending love,

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Stilling the Mind through Yoga

As many of you know, I will be leaving on July 29 for my fifth trip to Pune, India, the home of the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI). There I will have the opportunity to learn from Abhi and Prashant Iyengar and other institute teachers, and to relax deeply into my daily practice and study of the yoga sutras, pranayama and asana. Preparation for the trip is complicated, but I am slowly making my way through various lists of tasks to be completed before I embark.

While in India, I plan to blog regularly about my experiences, so I hope you will check in to see how it is all going. I absolutely love hearing your comments, so please engage! The blog is a great way for me to stay connected to my friends ands students at home. If you want to receive the blog in your email, please subscribe using the form on the right.

Over the last couple months, I have been posting some of my published articles about yoga philosophy. I hope you will enjoy my thoughts on the opening aphorisms of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

May your practice flourish, for the benefit of all beings!


Stilling the Mind through Yoga

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali begin with a simple statement, “Now the teaching on yoga begins.” This first sutra or aphorism is a way of calling us to attention, so we can receive the wisdom contained in the teachings that will follow. The very first word of this treatise on yoga philosophy is artha or now. In a sense, this initial word of the first sutra is a summary of the entire teaching, which is to learn to live in the present, in a state that is content, spacious and blissful, free from any desire for that moment to be different from what it is. All the teachings that follow point to this end.

The second sutra of Chapter I is the often-quoted definition of yoga: Yoga cittavrtti nirodhha. It is useful to reflect on various translations of this sutra.

Yoga is the cessation of the movements in the consciousness.
B.K.S Iyengar
Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.
Chip Hartranft
Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuation of consciousness.
Georg Feuerstein
Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.
Alistair Shearer
Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distraction.
T.K.V. Desikachar
Yoga is the control of thought-waves in the mind.
Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood

All these translations tell us that the movements of the mind, or cittavrittis, can be stilled, bringing the mind to a state of undisturbed silence. Some translations use words like “cessation” or “control” implying an active use of will to restrain the mind’s habitual patterns. Other translations use the terms “settling” or “still the patterning” giving a sense of a passive or receptive experience that we need only allow to take place. Each approach may be useful at different times. What joins them is the need for regular, disciplined practice.

Any of us who have attempted to relax in a soothing yoga pose, or sit in quiet meditation, are well aware of the mind’s conditioned habit of jumping from thought to thought. This experience has been labeled “monkey mind” and we instantly understand what is meant when we hear this phrase. The mind moves quickly from desire to fear to memory to hope to regret to nostalgia and around again. Countless sensory images and thoughts pass through our minds in short periods of time. Yoga practice trains us to observe this habit, slow the process down, and eventually, bring it to complete cessation.

It is interesting to note that the definition of yoga is based completely on the condition of the mind, and does not mention the physical state at all. The physical postures or asanas have many benefits, and a key one is that we develop enough physical health and vitality to be able sit for long periods of time without the disturbance of physical pain. The ability to sustain a seated posture that is stable and comfortable allows us to do the deeper work on our habitual mental tendencies.

The third sutra in this first chapter tells us that once our mental fluctuations have been stilled, we will experience the spacious, free and whole state that yoga posits is our true nature, or as B.K.S. Iyengar translates, “our own true splendor.” The idea of being completely free of disturbing thoughts and emotions may seem to most of us like a distant dream. Yet we can all feel the calm that follows the practice of a supported, restorative yoga posture, or the refreshment that comes after a few minutes of silent sitting.

Yoga practice gives us practical means to uncover the divine within. While the goal may seem distant, it is helpful to remember the teaching from the Bhagavad Gita, another sacred text of yoga. “No righteous action is ever wasted, and no obstacle is eternal.”

Copyright Karen Allgire 2008

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