Hello from Pune, India! I’m currently immersed in a month of study at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI), the source for Iyengar Yoga. As I’m sure most of you can imagine, making a month-long getaway a reality is no easy feat, so once I’m here I’m especially focused on my Yoga. I do all I can to absorb and digest the teachings and take full advantage of the privilege of being here for this very special immersion.
Writing has always been an effective and even cathartic way for me to ‘unpack’ the lessons learned. Interestingly, some of my writing ends up being kind of personal but other parts, I have been including on social media. I thought that maybe a compilation of all my posts might be of interest to some of you so, that’s what this blog post is. I hope you enjoy following along with my Sadhana…
Some takeaways from RIMYI classes, June 2018
Geetaji focused our first pranayama class on the inhalation. Why? Because “the inhalation is concrete and the exhalation is abstract”… just one of the gems she shared with us this evening.
Geetaji taught the ladies class this morning but I can’t in good conscience share the sequence. It was a collection of seemingly ‘simple’ asanas and a sequence could not possibly capture the essence of the teachings. I think my main takeaway was awe. Awe for how much there is to learn and awe for how brilliantly Geetaji sees the bodies in front of her.
But… for those of you looking for inspiration in practice, I’ll leave you with one thing that we played with in the class. In Uttanasana, Parsvottanasana, and Prasarita Padottanasana, we worked the concave back action with straight arms and cupped fingers. We then hovered the cupped fingers off the floor and worked even more at moving the dorsal in. Then, maintaining all that, put the fingers back down. I found the contrast of the two positions quite revealing!
Our Sunday afternoon adventure involved Aga Kahn Palace, street side chai, and a vegan restaurant (!)
Are you of ‘sound’ mind? What does that mean?? Prashant offered up a beautiful explanation… Playing with the word ‘sound’, he said that while our muscles can be toned, it’s with the breath that you can tune the mind.
In today’s class, Prashant asked us to think about velocity in our yoga practice. He said there’s a velocity for ‘doing’ and a velocity for ‘learning’. We all come here to learn, but when we’re on the mat do we approach the practice with the appropriate velocity to actually encourage learning???
In today’s Women’s class with Geetaji, we worked with Parsvottanasana. We played with different placements for the back foot: a) as in Utthita Hasta Padasana or b) turned in 60 degrees.
* Which presentation is more stable?
* Which presentation sharpens and tones the outer thigh of the back leg?
* Which presentation encourages the head to touch the shin?
* Which presentation nourishes the organic body?
At another point in the class, Raya did a demo of Utthita Trikonasana and Geeta had him really work at revolving the lower abdomen. She asked him what he felt and he explained that the movement came from within, with passivity. He described it as pratyahara of the organic body. And then Geeta elaborated on that idea. She said that in order to have pratyahara, you need pranayama, and in order to have pranayama, there must be asana….hence, as Guruji coined it, ‘dynamic meditation’…these are not separate, isolated practices!
In Raya’s class last night we worked on standing poses using the lines on the floor as a guide. Not unlike Geetaji’s teaching of Parsvottanasana from the other day, we played with alternatives to the foot placement that we are most familiar with. For example, instead of aligning the small toe of the back foot straight forward in Virabhadrasana II, we aligned the 2nd/3rd toe straight forward. This had a very particular effect on the outer thigh/hip/groin area, which of course, also transformed the big picture experience. At one point (I think he was having pity on us because of the incredibly long holdings) Raya asked if we knew the story behind the lines on the floor. Guruji was asked why there are only a few thickly painted lines but several thin lines. The story goes that he had expected most of the students to have fine intelligence and awareness and hence the thin lines would be best, but he added that if he were to redesign the hall, he’d have made them all thick and dense as that would more aptly suit us
Today’s class went a good half hour over and not only did Geetaji deliver us a brilliant practice, but she shared some key messages. She said (quite frankly) that it sometimes takes more than one person to get into a pose. She encouraged us to consult LOY, to work with a friend, and to ‘figure stuff out’. When we were working on Ardha Matsyendrasana II for example, she had Gulnaaz work with Abhi and we watched how they tried different means for assisting Abhi to get around. Or for Malasana, we watched how Uma was best assisted by multiple teachers at the same time. She encouraged teachers to understand this, particularly in the context of the medical classes. She reminded us that Guruji had no patience to explain the ins and outs of these things to her, that she just needed to ‘catch’ but then she proceeded to ever so generously share her insights with us.
Every time I come to Pune, I feel like my forward extensions are profoundly affected. The combination of the heat plus the stellar teaching (!) seems to propel my forward extensions into new territory. Today’s class was no exception. We did a fantastic sequence that included several mini-sequences. For example, we did Triang Mukhakapada Paschimottanasana —> One leg stays in Virasana, other leg Marichyasana, bind and twist open —> Same legs, bind but twist closed —> Krounchasanas (then repeat the sequence to the other side). We spent time in each pose and really worked into it. Or another mini sequence I really enjoyed was Marichyasana I —> Pasasana —> Malasana —> Bakasana (then repeat the sequence starting with Marichyasana I to the opposite side). It’s just so amazing to see what’s possible with deliberate intention, strategic sequencing, long holdings, and several repetitions!!!
My favourite takeaway from Prashant’s class this morning was his distinction between ‘doing’ in practice and ‘using’ in practice. Typically, we do the actions of each pose, but Prashantji asked us to instead, use the various actions for a particular purpose. For example, straighten your legs for your lungs, straighten your legs for your shoulder, straighten your legs for your mind. Since today there is an app for everything, let there be an application for each action! He encouraged us to use the actions of each asana to understand, excavate, and educate ourselves about ourselves.
In a similar vein, he spoke to the value of focusing wealth as opposed to spreading it around. Just as there is value in collectively pooling money for the greater good versus each person receiving a nominal amount, he posited that we don’t need to do every action from head to toe in every pose, every time. What would happen if we changed our approach in practice and channelled the intelligence, awareness, sensitivity to one place (or for one purpose) and really developed it?!?!?
Anyone who knows the structure of my body and/or my history with back pain and various spinal issues will know that accessing my tailbone and aligning my legs and pelvis (be it upside down or right side up) has often been a challenge (aka…the bane of my existence? 😭). In this morning’s class, I received a beautiful lesson addressing exactly that. Myself, along with a handful of other students were asked to demo our Sirsasana for the rest of the group because for each of us, our buttocks hung back. Geetaji then had us quickly come down and stand in Tadasana, where similar tendencies were observed. She then instructed us to cut the midline of the buttock strongly (!) in without letting the thighs fall forward, and insisted that we lift the front body up all the way from pubic area. Some improvements were noticed, but clearly not enough as Geetaji then had us lie prone. With the floor beneath us for reference, she re-instructed us to cut the mid-line of the buttock in, and then do it once again with the legs wider. Finally, we went back up into Sirsasana and translated the lesson. Working the same action but changing the orientation (—> moving from standing to lying down to an inversion) was a remarkable way to shine a spotlight on the area. Although I still find that action and part of my body elusive, today’s lesson afforded me fleeting moments of connection, a taste for the spark…🙏
Raya’s class was essentially a tribute to the art of sequencing (He linked Ustrasana to Parsvottanasana…Pada Hastasana to a closed seated twist…!). It was vigorous, vibrant, but also introspective. We worked a ton of Padmasana and in general, a lot of groin work and twists. In fact by the time the practice was over, I literally couldn’t find my words. I felt like I needed to crawl out from the deep cave I had just been in. Fortunately, a short walk and some papaya boats (check out the photo) later brought me back, and Lori, Kari & I were able to solidly debrief about the class. I think my most favourite presentation was doing a flat matsyasana with a rolled mat laying horizontally under the low buttock. We lay back and pumped our knees to the floor. I’m pretty sure Raya’s words were something like, ‘even if the back arches, pump the knees down, till they touch, go, go, go’. Having the mat under the low buttock helped to open my groins and felt like yet another teacher reinforcing Geetaji’s point (from the other day) – cut the midline of my buttocks IN! Seems that lesson is following me around…
At one point in Saturday’s class, Geetaji said that when you teach you can give about a quarter of what you know to the students, but the rest has to come from their own practice. This relatively quick remark struck me… As a teacher, I strive to deliver a good experience to my students. I work on ways to improve the clarity of my instructions, the effectiveness of my touch, the resonance of my voice, etc. but do I work equally as hard to inspire my students to practice at home? What is it about the Iyengar family’s teaching that makes me feel like there’s a whole universe just waiting to be revealed (…if I could only figure out how to communicate with the inner back corner of my small toe, or bring light to areas that are dull, or….?) and, what is it about their teaching that ultimately inspires me to spend time on my mat and see where it takes me???
Prashant began backbending week off by introducing the concepts of stiffness and resistance. What is the difference? What is the best way to respond to each? He again emphasized that the pacing and velocity of ‘doing’ will affect one’s ability to learn. So if there is stiffness, how ought the velocity of your approach change? Or, if you are fighting against resistance, what about then? What is the role of the body in this effort, what is the role of the mind?
This distinction was timely, as I’m definitely bumping up against resistance (aka = fear!) as I confront some of the stronger backbends. I am reminded of BKS Iyengar’s quote… “The brain is the hardest part of the body to adjust”
I think one of my favourite things about being here is that the teaching is unapologetically current. It’s of no consequence how something was taught last week/month/year, all that seemingly matters is that the teaching responds to the bodies in the room. It’s a refreshing reminder that Yoga is not a stagnant concept. Yoga is changing, growing, evolving, just as our own experience and understanding does. The metaphor of the yoga journey being akin to peeling layers of an onion has always resonated for me. Having this month to immerse myself in study has only reinforced the depth of opportunity and growth that yoga affords…
And just so you don’t think I have gone completely off the philosophical deep end, I’ll leave you with some practical, grounded-in-reality observations from Geeta’s backbends class 😉…
We spent a good amount of time exploring the shape of the neck and throat in back extensions. We began the practice in a range of seated poses (swastikasana, virasana, dandasana) and arched back (with cupped fingers stabilizing us from behind). How much the head has to go! What happens to the dorsal when the head goes back? We then looked at photos from Light on Yoga and examined the placement of Guruji’s head.
Next was a playful exploration of Uttana Padasana (legs and chest action only, no arms), Paryankasana, Matsyasana, and Swastikasana with the same back arch as the other poses. The emphasis was on going back evenly (both elbows touching down simultaneously) and coming up evenly. At one point she had us arch back to the top of our head and then immediately come back up and repeat it like that, 5 times. Then we stayed in the pose and used our arms like in Urdhva Dhanurasana to roll even more towards the forehead, like the photos of Guruji we were looking at previously.
We also examined the role of ‘space’ in back extensions. We took paschinamaskarasana in Tadasana and then again with legs wide apart (in Utthita Hasta Padasana). There were some students who were only able to match their palms with their legs apart…why????? (Eventually Geetaji had pity on us and explained how important it is for the paraspinal muscles to spread in back extensions, and that with legs wide this spreading is facilitated.)
The theme of space came up again when we worked Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Salabhasana, & Bhujangasana. Not only were we told that our buttocks need to divorce each other (right buttock to the right, left buttock to the left) but space, space, space. We took the legs wide, and only if the actions were maintained, did the legs come narrower. Even in Urdhva Dhanurasana, we were told to not let the knees/thighs roll so much towards one another.
Abhijata taught today’s Women’s class. It was an exploration of backbends with equal parts playfulness and thoughtfulness. The lesson of ‘cutting the mid-line my buttocks in’ that I’ve spoken about in previous posts again followed me (ha, I say followed but in actuality, it’s just that my ear is attuned to anything remotely related to that action 😉). We worked on it in Adho Mukha Vrksasana, Pincha Mayurasana and in Sirsasana but this time, Abhi consistently linked the buttock action to the position of the diaphragm. This was especially clear when she showed Pincha Mayurasana on a student. She said that so often we (teachers) go in and want to correct/instruct the low ribs so that the diaphragm will soften. However if the buttock is already hanging back and you move the ribs back, the student will ultimately lose their balance. So instead of instructing the low ribs to go back, she emphasized that the mid buttock needs to come forward! We looked at LOY photos of Guruji in full arm balance and pincha mayurasana – it’s not that he ‘can’t’ suck his abdomen back, rather it’s shaped that way for a reason!
We also did a related experiment in Sirsasana. From Sirsasana, we lowered the legs just a little bit, maybe 20 degrees. We observed how the diaphragm caved and folded inward. Then we raised the legs back up while cutting the mid-buttock in and observed the difference. Not only did this drive the relationship between the mid-buttock and diaphragm home but Abhi used this opportunity to impress upon us how inextricably linked our asana and pranayama practices really are.
After the inversions, we moved into backbends. Essentially, we had to decide what held us back in Urdhva Dhanurasana: buttocks or shoulders. We divided into groups and played with all sorts of presentations to help improve our Urdhva Dhanurasana (we eventually got to switch groups and try all those presentations too). We kept going back to our mats in the middle of the room and seeing how each variation affected our efforts at the classical pose. Again, it was playful, thoughtful, and inspiring all at once.
After that, we move to the standing arch and dropping back to Urdhva Dhanurasana. With Raj Laxmi’s support, I couldn’t believe it, but I did it. I dropped back from standing to Urdhva Dhanurasana! I came down, gave her a big smile, rolled to the side, stood up and a wave of emotion all of a sudden overtook me. Tears began streaming down my face. I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t in pain, in fact if there was any emotion at all, I’d have to say it was joy. Wow, what a reminder how powerful this practice can be! Today was a testament to the depth of Yoga. Despite feeling that words can’t quite capture my experience, it’s clear to me that imprints are being made…physically, physiologically, emotionally, intellectually, psychologically…and probably in other ways too that I don’t even understand 🙏💛
At the end of the medical class, Geetaji addressed the student teachers who were assisting in the class. She closed with a passionate declaration: “Yoga is an art and it must be taught from the heart”
Today’s class was an inversions clinic. We looked at Sirsasana, Sarvangasana, Halasana & Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. I think we spent the most time working on Setu Bandha/Chatuspadasana. We worked with height under the shoulders, then with height under the feet. Then, because we still weren’t getting the action of the shin bones, we went higher up still with our feet on the wall. Geetaji made several remarks (and demos) about how different this pose is for men and for women.
Full disclosure…chatuspadasana is one of my most challenging positions. With a bolster under my feet, I felt like I kept collapsing into the concave side of my back. With height under my shoulders, my scoliosis didn’t bother me but still my low back pained, and with my feet higher up the wall, I had no pain, but also no response. I could not engage my legs in an effective manner to open my chest! I could hear what Geetaji was saying but I couldn’t ‘feel’ it and as the class progressed, I felt myself getting more and more frustrated.
While not the report back you may have expected, I thought it worthwhile to share this experience. Regardless of one’s level of practice, these kinds of struggles will inevitably present. Yoga ‘on the mat’ takes many forms, and in this case, not letting my mindset get the better of me (i.e. Why can’t I do this? Why is it hurting? I should be able to do this by now! How can I not be sensitive enough to feel what is being taught?…etc) was just as much of a challenge as the work itself.
Before I sign off for today, please enjoy the beautiful imagery Geetaji shared with us while we were in Sirsasana: “The knees are the sun of the body and when the knees are open, they spread light throughout. Straighten your legs!”
If anyone showed up to Raya’s class expecting a quiet, pranayama practice, they were in for a rude awakening . We started with some work in Padmasana and he continued his emphasis on groins that he began 2 weeks prior. As we were working to descend the knees in Supta Padmasana, he reminded us that it’s not all about the stretch. “Do you know the difference between stretch and release?” He urged us to familiarize ourselves with the different textures of these distinct actions.
We also observed the groins in Supta Baddha Konasana. In Baddha Konasana and in Padmasana, is the tightness stemming from the groins or also the abdomen? Can you release the abdomen and the groins? Can releasing the abdomen facilitate a softening of the groins? (–> fyi, Raya didn’t posit those exact questions but this is was what I internalized from his instructions…) He did say we don’t want to be ‘hard core’ in yoga practice, rather go for soft core.
We then moved to Sirsasana. And what a Sirsasana it was! I felt like we were in it for 3 days but it was prob only 20 minutes . The emphasis was still groins. We did parsva Sirsasana, working the twist not just with the shoulders but really bringing the hips/pelvis around. We repeated the twist with baddha konasana legs and also padmasana. We held each twist for some time and once we were maximally around, the next phase was to throw the legs back somewhat – really cutting the mid-buttock in and opening the groins.
A couple of times (both upside down and right side up), Raya encouraged us to take a looser padmasana and see how that affected the groins. I had trouble with this because as soon as I let my padmasana loosen, my ankles felt compromised so I think I may have missed the point, but in practice I had been playing around with a super wide baddha konasana (lots of space between the feet) which certainly exaggerates the action of the groins…perhaps this is similar…
Next, a full arm balance to recover post-Sirsasana and then into a whole lot of Urdhva Dhanurasana. I wondered if I was going to be able to walk down the Institute stairs, my thighs were screaming! He also interjected a full arm balance variation a metre away from the wall. The work in Adho Mukha Vrksasana and Urdhva Dhanurasana conjured up memories from the shin work Geeta taught in the last Women’s class (specifically in Setu Bandha/Chatuspadasana). In both cases, the emphasis was less about pumping the chest but rather, lifting the hip corners/pelvic heads up.
I think next there was a seated twist, some Adho Mukha Svanasana, and then Halasana, Parsva Halasana, Parsva Karnapidasana, and some supine poses. Amazingly, he settled us so fully and completely. He emphasized the breath and directed our attention to the pattern/route inside that the breath took. We ended with a raised Savasana (over a 3-folded blanket, spine-wise) and it was… sublime
Until next time…
Many thx to all the teachers at #RIMYI for a truly incredible month of Iyengar Yoga . Much love also to those who followed my journey online. Your likes and comments warmed my heart .