Sunday, November 17, 2013

During November...Yoga, Eat, Sleep

When I make my daily Skype call to my husband (Internet willing. Thursday is known around here as a "bad" Internet day without any explanation), My response to his question about what I did that day is invariably "Yoga, eat, sleep. Repeat." We have certainly settled into a routine, but my response belies how much we are really doing. This is truly an immersion of an intensity that requires time for assimilation, not to mention calories for refueling and zzzz's for recovery. It is difficult at this point to be articulate about all that has happened with the yoga. Processing time is required. One of the U.S. students who has been here with us since October, says it always takes her two years.

November started with a large influx of new students and a handful of us continuing on from October. Overall it is a much larger group than last month.  It was jarring at first as we had to adjust to less room in the practice hall (mat to mat) and having to wait for a favorite prop. My students have probably heard me say more than once when we are cramped for space at the rope wall, for instance, that it still does not compare to India. Overall, it seems the experience level of the students is more mixed this month. In the first Friday pranayama, Geetaji had to go way back to basics--how to sit in Swastikasana. There was frustration on her part (we have heard her say "You are killing me! I am coming to the end of my life. All the time I have to teach over again what you should know"). But she worked with a great deal of compassion with the students she was helping. The results were exquisite, so much space achieved in the chest so there was some chance that some breath could reach there in the pranayama. I have also seen Geetaji work with the Indian teachers on these occasions almost with a sense of urgency to get them trained with what she knows. She cares very much about them. 

As the time for my departure nears, I am both excited to return to my family and already nostalgic about my time here. Yes, I have been told about the snow that already came to Morgantown. For some reason my husband was not very sympathetic when I said it had gotten colder here too. I actually have to wear long sleeves for my morning walk to the Institute! Our shared experiences will always connect me to the wide variety of students from around the world that I have met here. It has become comical when Abhi inevitably shouts out during class "RUSSIA! Where are the Russian students?" She wants them to be near each other so they can help translate for each other since many do not understand English well. Sweden, Germany, China, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Canada, U.K., Scotland, Ireland, Indonesia, Italy, Colorado, South Carolina, New York, California, New Mexico, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Hawaii are all represented.There are also the many friendly "locals" that have enriched our stay; the smiling guard at the Institute gate who has learned our names, the also always smiling lady who sells vegetables to us and fed us in her home, the rickshaw driver who brings me the best yogurt I have ever tasted so I don't have to bounce in the rickshaw to the store, the happy children who wave and shout hello to this tall white woman on my walk to the Institute, the "coconut man" who prepares my refreshing post-yoga coconut milk (watch out for the machete!).

I have found the following from my teacher, Mary O, to be spot on about my time here, "It is so very rich, complex, scary, wonderful—all those things, all the time".

Sharing a coconut:

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Body, The Mind and The Breath

For those of you who have taken Iyengar Yoga classes, it's not too long before you become at least somewhat conversant about body parts. In Saturday's class, for example, we were told to move the tailbone toward the pubis and move the dorsal spine toward the sternum. We were also asked to observe how one action links to another; roll the back upper inner thighs out to broaden the back thighs. 

It gets more and more interesting when other faculties are called upon. During the class on Saturday, Abhi and Guruji had us putting "the mind into the sternum". From pose to pose and even from action to action within a posture, we were constantly asked "Is your mind in the sternum?" The answer was no, of course, as Mind had already wavered into the new task at hand. "Extend your arms all the way from your chest. Now is your mind in your sternum?" "Yes!" The legs weren't exempt. "Is your mind in the front thigh or the back thigh?" Generally, the front body is more known to us than the back body. "Put your mind into the back thighs!"

In Prashantaji's classes, he tells us that body and mind are rooted in tendencies that limit us while breath does not have limitations. The breath is the teacher within you; use breath to teach the body and mind. He says use the breath to condition the mind, to bring sedate qualities. Breath is the catalyst to bring unity within you. It has a leadership role. Breath is friendliness. It has an organizing nature to allow community within you to grow. Use the breath to get the mind unstuck. Use breath for the equal distribution of consciousness. He reminds us that the purpose of yoga is not for a better Trikonasana (triangle pose) but to live a better life. Use the breath for transformation. He says, "My class is not a restaurant where you get immediate satisfaction. It is like paying an insurance policy; distasteful when you write the check but you reap the benefits later".


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Patanjali Jayanthi and Diwali

Friday evening,November 1 we attended the celebration of Patanjali Jayanthi at the Institute. It was the birth anniversary of Patanjali, the sage who "penned the ancient Indian heritage of Yoga through his treatise, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. After we assembled on the floor of the practice hall, Guruji arrived in his flowing robes and was seated in a throne-like chair. Geetaji and Prashantaji were also in attendance. Abhi, Guruji's granddaughter, led the entire proceedings in a thoughtful and very personal manner.  One could feel the pride emanating from Guruji for his granddaughter. 

Abhi led us in the chant to Patanjali to invoke his blessings. We then chanted the 51 sutras in part one of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Abhi gave a heartfelt and inspiring talk about knowing the "essence" of yoga not just chanting or performing asanas by rote. Her anecdotes about her grandfather (this was the first time I heard her reference him this way rather than Guruji) were priceless.  She said once when they were working together she could feel those big, bushy eyebrows reaching across to her as if they were going to touch her. Once when she had the goal of holding Sirsasana (headstand) as long as possible she was quite proud of herself when she reached 20 minutes.  Until Guruji asked her "how were you in the pose". Not understanding she replied to him how long she held the pose. But he said she only knew the time but did not know "the why" (the essence) of being in the asana. On another occasion she said she was starting her practice slowly and was feeling rather stiff it being first thing in the morning. Guruji soon called for her to do Rajakapotasana, a challenging backbending pose. She said let me just finish a few more warming up poses but Guruji said no and he soon had her in the more difficult pose. The lesson was that the mind, not the body, is what limits us. 

As we left the Institute we were given prasad, in this instance a small sweet that had been offered first to a deity with the belief that the deity's blessing then resides in it.  When walking to our apartment the celebrating for the festival of Diwali was already evident. Diwali, the festival of lights, is a major holiday in India. Small clay lamps are lit to signify the triumph of good over evil. The lamps are kept burning during the night and one's house is cleaned, both done to make Lakshmi feel welcome.  Even in our apartment, all our curtains were taken down and clean ones put up. Lakshmi is the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity (both material and spiritual) and she is said to bring good luck. 

Perhaps the most noticeable part of the celebration for us, was the shooting of firecrackers. It is believed that the noise will drive away evil spirits. That Friday evening we went to bed with all the noise, sounding like a war outside (ear plugs help) and awoke on Saturday morning to worse than usual air quality with the smell of the gun powder. Thankfully, we were soon on our way out of town to our holiday retreat we booked at a resort at a higher elevation near the town of Lonavala to "be in nature" as the Indians say. (The higher elevation towns are known as "hill stations", a legacy from the British who sought out refuge from the summer heat.) The last stretch of the drive here was like West Virginia mountain roads, narrow and curvy and I was a bit car sick. But all worth it as this spot is beautiful, QUIET, and luxurious with clean air!  We are relaxing, restoring in preparation for the resumption of classes at the Institute on Wednesday. 

Last night, Sunday, was the main night for the Diwali celebration. Candles were lit throughout the resort and in front of our villa.  After we finished with our sumptuous dinner (we were eating well ahead of the Indian guests here as we are still on the early bedtime we maintain for our classes in Pune), we were asked if we wanted dessert.  We both declined, but soon one of the chefs brought over special Diwali sweets for us to try. The sharing of sweets is part of the Diwali celebration. So we ate and then soon were contentedly in our beds, heard just two booms of firecrackers and were soon asleep. Ah, life is good.

Guruji at the Patanjali Jayanthi celebration:


Patanjali statute:

Happy Diwali:

Homes decorated for Diwali:

The neighborhood boys in the spirit of Dewali:

The view from our villa in the mountains:

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Gift of Time

It is such an opportunity to be able to immerse myself in yoga for so many hours a day. My weekly schedule at the Institute includes 3 early morning classes with Prashant (2 hours each) followed by an open practice (2.75 hours), 2 Women's classes (2 hours each) taught by either Geeta or another senior teacher mentored by either Geeta or Guruji with an open practice in late afternoon (2 hours), an evening pranayama class (Geeta; 1.5 hours) with a morning open practice that day (2.75 hours). I also observe the 2 hour Remedial (formerly Medical) class that my friend, Lisa, attends 2 days a week for help with a neck/back injury. That adds up to a lot of hours!

The practice hours are some of my favorite. The hall takes on a quieter ambiance as we individually go to work. Mostly we are not talking and if necessary we do in a whisper. The background noises from the street coming in the open windows have a familiar, almost reassuring, quality by now. There is the caw of birds, the rumble of cars, motor-scooters, trucks, and rickshaws, the beep of horns (used much more prevalently then at home, and somewhat mysteriously; why is it necessary after I have finished crossing the street and my feet are safely aground to beep at me??). It seems there is always an unhappy baby crying from the child care center across the street. It is so regular I wonder if it is the same infant each day? My favorite sound is the occasional clip-clop of hooves and jingle of bells on the harness of the oxen pulling a wooden wagon with large wheels. The oxen's horns are painted red and these large beasts are all about their business of hauling that wagon through the mishmash of traffic. If I am near a window, I stop what I am doing to look out. I always smile at the juxtaposition of old and new.  

During these practice sessions, I start with work on my shoulders, an area for me in constant need of attention.  Lois Steinberg, the senior teacher from Illinois, calls for these problem areas to be attended to with "your everyday poses". With my gift of time, I actually am doing everyday.  I think you might even be hearing halfway around the world, the seismic shifts as changes are happening. I am also regularly practicing some poses from the sequence given to Lisa for her neck and back injury.  Lisa and I have decided between the two of us, we might form one "whole" person.  Her neck/back issues are on the right side, while mine are on the left. I have found the propping with blankets behind the knee and at the groin along with the pressing of the foot to the column in Supta Padangustasana (bent knee version) is working wonders on my creaky sacrum/lumbar. I am also trying to imprint in my body my understanding of how Guruji instructed Lisa to ground the femurs but begin twisting from the buttocks not just the torso. Then I fill out the remaining time, which amazingly I seem to run out of, practicing sequences we have done in the classes or if my energy is low restoring myself in supported poses. Always I do as much time as possible in inversions.

It is very interesting to observe what others are practicing and how they modify or prop poses.  Sometimes someone will come over and ask for direction about why you are doing a specific pose and could you show them how it's done. It has been a very congenial group this month. Many have started to leave as the month nears its end. But more will join us in November.

Those days that Guruji is in the practice hall, you know that his eyes see you. Of course, we watch him as he holds for long periods his supported backbends and inversions.  One of the teachers, usually Raya, escorts him into the hall with a protective arm behind him but not touching him. Then Raya assists him getting into and out of the postures and places a timer in his sight line. It is not uncommon to see the assistant racing quickly to help Guruji out of a pose. Guruji is doing remarkable things for a man his age (almost 95) but his mortality is evident. His vitality is still evident when he sits in Padmasana and puts his granddaughter, Abhi, through the paces giving her instruction and taking her deeper and deeper. Abhi works hard, whimpers some, but always says OK. The torch is being passed to the next generation.

Smiles break out all throughout the hall when Granddad brings Abhi's baby, Satvica, in for a visit. Her big, soulful eyes take in everything. I have seen her held over Guruji's still huge chest when he is upside down in Viparita Karani and her little feet slide down toward his face.  She is held in a sitting position before his face and she reaches for his nose and those big bushy eyebrows. Guruji coos and clucks and there is absolute joy on his face. When Granddad is exiting with Satvica, he takes her in front of the Patanjali (compiler of the Yoga Sutras) statue and blesses her. The final stop is before a large art piece depicting the symbol for OM. For several days, I have heard him saying OM to her. Then one day I heard a tiny little OM, and not being in sight of them I thought I must have imagined it.  But Lisa came over to me and asked me if I heard Satvica saying OM! This from the baby who never makes a peep when she is in the practice hall. So it appears that the Iyengar Yoga lineage will carry to the future.

A street sign that as far as I can tell is ignored:

Photos are not allowed inside the practice hall.  These are from the web:

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Brilliant Again

After we rolled out of the last Savasana at last night's pranayama class, there was a such a calm energy in the room. All of us knew something amazing had taken place and the sense I had was that no one quite wanted to interject anything or disturb what had been created.  Lisa and I walked back to our apartment, warmed leftovers, and ate virtually in silence.  Only then did the words come, quite inadequately, to describe what Geetaji had taught.

My feeble explanation of the last part of the class is that Geetaji guided us to take our breath into shapes corresponding to alphabet letters: an inverted V, T, O, Y, S and H. But there was so much more. I mostly wanted to say that still this morning the effects within me remain profound.  Brilliant.

Friday, October 18, 2013


Geeta Iyengar is the daughter of B.K.S. Iyengar and a powerful teacher in her own right.  I have had the good fortune to study with her on several occasions during my previous India visits in 2000 and 2003 and at two of the U.S. National Iyengar Yoga Conventions in 2001 and 2010.  Geetaji is not teaching as much these days and I only expected to have her for the Friday night pranayama classes during this trip.  So far we have been privileged to also be in two asana classes that she taught.  Geetaji brilliantly sequences her classes and before you know it you have penetrated deeply into an advanced asana as you never have done before.

In one class the target pose was Eka Pada Sirsasana (LOY plate 370).  She prepared us with long holds in the classic version of Adho Mukha Virasana (knees together, feet apart) and Pasasana (legs only) heels down without support, no exceptions! As we squatted she had us pump up and down, away from and then toward the heels.  She said, "You give your students props for the heels and then they never change".  And wouldn't you know it many more heels were touching! We continued to work on flexibility in the ankles and toes doing what Geetaji called Adho Mukha Surya Namaskarasana. Gulnaz clarified for us the next day that this is the prostration one would do "in a temple before your god or guru". Squatting in Pasasana (with heels touching the floor ;-), rock forward over the toes, place forehead to ground and then reverse going back to Pasasana. As many of my students know, I have a repertoire of things I like to teach for the feet and ankles. Heads up! Now I have more. The class continued with a "forward bend version" of headstand (think Pasasana legs), Supta Kurmasana, Kurmasana, Malasana and then multiple repetitions of coaxing the foot to the forehead, to the top of the head, and the now real possibility of behind the head in Eka Pada Sirsasana.  

The second class was an invigorating session of inversions and backbends. We pumped our armpits in down dog, stood on our arms in full arm balance and lifted our heads off the floor in headstand.  Then using this technique of lifting the head from the floor, we dropped back from Salamba Sirsasana into Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana. It was slick and worked very well. Best thing for me was this class along with a delicious, restorative practice I did in the afternoon, fixed me from the "blahs" I woke with. I was afraid that I was heading for a cold. Instead, that night I slept so well and woke ready to go again.

One does not forget Geetaji's classes whether it be a specific action, the penetration into cellular memory, or an attitude.  During my first visit, Geetaji touched my side ribs to move them inward when I was twisting in Bharadvajasana. I still feel that touch whenever I do twists.  Due to her health, she mostly teaches seated on the platform now and doesn't move around within the class. But she sees everywhere. I will remember from this trip her eyes honing in on my wayward knee when prepping for Eka Pada Sirsasana.  She corrected me and when I did, her face softened and she said yes. The big, big lesson she imparted to us was to be humble. It is difficult not to be in her presence.  

I will end with these words paraphrased from Geetaji: If you make effort then it is OK to fail. But do not fail before making effort.

Photo from:

Monday, October 14, 2013

Obligatory Rites When Studying at the Institute

Geeta taught digital pranayama at Friday's class. There is a specific hand Mudra used to control the flow of breath between the nostrils. Our teachers stress that before coming to study at the Institute, we must know the technique. Geeta asked us by a show of hands who knew. Then she observed us doing and proclaimed that no, we did not know and scolded us.  As I was leaving class I laughed when one of the U.S. students said to me, "Well, we got the obligatory pranayama scolding from Geeta out of the way". It's true I heard the same reprimand on my previous trips.

But past that the class was wonderful. We were instructed to "release the brain toward your heart to become humble. Let go the ego. Let go your I-ness. Exhale to help the humbleness come."

There are a couple other obligatory traditions when one comes to the Institute. Having your picture taken in front of the sign as well as taking a photo of the OM on the front gate.