Keep Calm, Carry On

“Lot of people they don’t know what they are capable of.
And when they do, they almost don’t believe they make it”

Patricia Walden

I nicked this from a friend’s post today on Facebook – she’s the kind of teacher who always seems to post just the right thing at the right time to describe my day – uncanny as I’ve never met her – such is the synchronicity of yoga teachers and like minded people perhaps, or just coincidence. Either way, this quote came on a day when I did just what she described and it reminded me so much of my own students and their journey through the yoga experience.

I’ve been attempting this pose kind of with a wink in the eye for some time – as my senior certificate level approaches, the attention to it is getting more serious but still keeping a good humour about it so that I don’t develop a negative attitude when it keeps eluding me! So today, with that same good cheer I went about “attempting” the pose, but for some reason, a change in the weather/attitude, I decided to practice it in a different way, more playful, more curious and less formulaic – how about like this, or like that, or what happens if I do this…..and while my mind was distracted (all the time whilst upside down on my head) my right foot in half padmasana (lotus), my left foot suddenly made contact with my right knee, for the first time in my years of practice without someone pushing my foot there. I surprised myself so much that I lost myself in the joy of it and of course fell straight out of it. But something had unlocked in my brain, so I went on to tackle other elusive poses and had similar successes, but this time, was prepared for the shock value, and managed to keep my head.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, it states that our practice and our attitude to all things should have equanimity, be free of attachment and desire for results. Although this might sound austere and devoid of feeling, you could also argue that this approach gives us enormous freedom to “play”, to experiment and to just try, be curious, without the pressure of goal setting or expectation. The trick is, not to panic when things actually work! But instead, to keep a cool head – “Keep calm and carry on.”

When I was in Pune last year, one of the most memorable classes was with Sunita who was teaching some very strong backwards extensions – we had to attempt to arch back as far as we could from standing – we repeated and repeated several times. She could see the fear in many of us and at one point she said, “Just try it and see.” In other words, it doesn’t matter whether you achieve a good pose or not, whether your pose is better or worse than anyone else’s in the room, just do it, without the fear, without those boundaries that we surround ourselves with. Let go.

Padmasana
Padmasana in Sirsasana

Stay Centered in Yoga in Life

Today I was preparing for the Wednesday intermediate Iyengar Yoga class which I teach for 2 hours each Wednesday afternoon in the Algarve. This week it’s standing poses and I had decided to choose a sequence inspired by one of Geeta Iyengar’s classes I had taken last November, whilst in RIMYI, Pune (Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute – otherwise known as the Iyengar “mothership”). I love to look back at those classes and take myself in my mind there, trying to recall images, sensations and words that she spoke to us, information, ideas and messages she was conveying. I’m an avid note taker (after the class, not during) but I don’t often use them religiously to recall information – I find that once the moment has passed, what we take away in impressions is much more lasting and useful than a sequence of hastily written down words and phrases which often later, make no sense – or even writing that we can’t read (I said I was an avid note taker but not necessarily a good one!) One of my main teachers, Manouso Manos tells us that we have to learn to see and hear things in a specific way to allow the teachings to go in deep. When we are taking notes during a class, we are actually drawn away from the subject, not towards it instead of being fully absorbed in the moment – “yoga is about being in the NOW”

RIMYI Gates

However, there is always something in my notes that sticks out and comes back as a reminder and if I can remember pertinent phrases, I will write them down to ponder over later. I had written down something that she said at the beginning, and this was the beginning of the first class of the month for all us international visitors, “Don’t mess around going here there and everywhere whilst you are here in Pune. Focus on RIMYI and learn as much as you can.” Geeta is so present and such a wise person and she sees so much. She sees us arriving in Pune thirsty for knowledge, hungry to absorb as much as we can in the time (usually one month) that we have at the Iyengar Institute. She hears all our questions, our eagerness to know everything, now. With the patience of a saint (!), she guides everyone who comes to her to be present and dedicated to their practice in a purely yogic way.

As in life, split yourself in too many directions and the focus is lost, the meaning of what you are doing/learning/aspiring to become is not there and your energies are dissipated every which way. In this age with all the activities and pathways of learning open to us, we can get lost in a sea of information and sign posts pulling us, choices to make, directions to take. Focus on what is in front of you, absorb as much as you can and you will learn faster, deeper, better and the knowledge will stay with you for longer. When you do your practice, what you have learnt will be there inside to draw upon even if you don’t have your notebook, or your iPad to hand to refer to, even if your teacher is not around to guide you. Your best teacher is always within you.

After all, among BKS Iyengar’s last words to his grand daughter, Abhijata Shridar before he died, having given 80 years of his life to yoga were: “I have shown you all these things, now realize them for yourself.”

 

Yoga Blog – Perfection in Practice

“Do not stop trying just because perfection eludes you”.

This quote by BKS Iyengar came to my mind this morning during my yoga practice. I’ve heard it many times but today it rang loud and clear in my head as I was berating myself in Adho Mukha Virasana (forward facing hero pose) for feeling stiff and aching. I was, for want of a better word, “crock-like” in my body, feeling a little older, a little less capable, weak maybe and all the negativity that could seep into my mind came with full force – why am I feeling like this when I’ve practiced so many years, I shouldn’t be like this, I’m a teacher, I’m not THAT old surely? “It must be my fault”, I decided, “I’m not good enough.” All these negative thoughts and feelings are common place for so many of us, but thankfully, yoga and the teachings of BKS Iyengar and all the great teachers he has inspired over the years, plus all our other good teachers in life, help us to nip these paths to negative thinking in the bud, to pull us back from the brink of defeat and despair.

So I did not stop trying. Although my body felt achy and not at all it’s usual strong and eager self, I carried on, but instead of forcing, I decided to listen to my body in every posture – what were those aches and pains trying to tell me, where were they coming from? How did I feel in my hips in one pose, compared to how they felt in another similar pose? Was it the same and if not, why? I went through my programme for the day with this attitude of perceptivity, listening, observing, recording, discarding actions that led me away from connectedness and gathering information and links between poses – I was building a road map through my practice.

I eventually came to a pose that I “knew” I would struggle with, that it would be challenging for my stiff shoulders and hamstrings. But again, I surrendered to my imperfections and my mind was clear, untroubled. The pose was Prasarita Padottanasana II, where the hands are in pascima namaskarasana and the head should reach the floor, but because the hands are behind the back, invariably the floor is a little further away than usual as you can’t use the hands to press and extend the trunk downwards. Also, the mere action of putting the hands behind the back in this position, when you are stiff, can be very difficult and painful.

Prasarita Padottanasana
Prasarita Padottanasana with the hands in pascima namaskarasana

To my surprise, my hands went into position relatively easily with little shoulder ache, my head, went straight down and touched the floor – my body actually felt good! It was as if the pose did itself, the mind, having changed its “mindset” from negative to, let’s say, positive curiosity, had given the body the freedom to do the pose to its best ability, and achieve better results than if I had decided instead to beat myself up and force, or like the quote says, to stop trying altogether. It was far from a perfect pose, but it had a perfectly positive effect on my mind and my attitude. It brought lightness, playfulness and optimism to the rest of my session and I ended with a feeling of determined enthusiasm.

Whatever your challenges in your practice and I daresay, in your life, surrendering to the imperfections (“feel the fear and do it anyway”) and seeing where the road takes you can be the best way forwards at a time when negativity starts to cloud your thoughts and your judgement. Be an optimist and keep getting back on the mat, keep trying.

 

 

End of a Month at RIMYI

As the month at RIMYI enters it’s final week, my colleagues and I are frantically trying to cram in as much observing, classes, practice and shopping as we can before we have to fly back to our various countries and homes. With the money situation as it is right now in India, coordinating enough cash to buy all the books, equipment and presents we can cram into our suitcases takes a little organising to say the least.  There are only a few hours a day when the ATMs have money and you are in for around a 45 minute queueing time, with a restriction on withdrawals of just 2000 rupees per card. It’s certainly been a challenging month with Prime Minister Modi’s decision to ban 500 and 1000 rupee notes over night, sending the country into panic – however many Indians we spoke to welcomed the action, but it did leave many people with no access to their funds, or, worse still, with money that had become suddenly worthless.

So now, every day is precious as it will be at least 12 months before we can return again and there are mixed emotions – excitement at coming home, seeing loved ones, getting back to teaching or work, family life etc, but also sadness at not seeing all the faces at RIMYI, not hearing Prashant’s voice as he offers us his ponderings on the “mystical, intuitive, creative process” that is yoga, not having Geeta piercing your very soul with her brilliant insights and sharing with us her 70 years of love and devotion for her father’s work, at the same time taking us further in our practice than we imagined possible. It is hard to leave this “temple of yoga” and not walk the familiar daily route along Hari Krishna Mandir Road, greeting the various street sellers and familiar faces, signing in at the gate and removing shoes, climb up the stairs to the practice hall where you may be practicing alongside RIMYI’s senior teachers like Abhijata, BKS Iyengar’s grandaughter, Raya, Rajlaxmi and Gulnaz as well as senior teachers from around the world and teachers from every country as well as local students.

I personally will miss some of the “patients” in the medical classes who I have watched over the month, sometimes assisted, and observed their progress. One lady in particular who must be in her 90s, I remember her from 2 years ago, she knows exactly what to do, all the props to use to support her body and she shows no fear or hesitation when going upside down or bending backwards.

It is, in fact, very hard to describe how much the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute means to many of us, how the very fabric of this place becomes part of you, the sights, sounds and smells seem to merge into the experience and you can feel the lifetime of practice and service that BKS Iyengar and his family have given to the community, local and worldwide. RIMYI is a humble building in comparison to more “glamorous” type ashrams, but the design was so clever, so forward thinking that for over 30 years it has accommodated the huge rise in numbers that you see in all the classes today, compared to when they first started when Guruji’s friend Pandu said, “well, if it doesn’t work, we can rent it as a wedding hall”!

This afternoon, we have a special extra practice with a recording of Prashant teaching in around 2000 – we will all meet and follow along (I wonder if he will be listening in to see how we get on….) and then there are only 4 days of classes left before I fly back to Portugal. I’m looking forward to starting my own medical/remedial class when I get home, to help people in my local community and also to work on my own yoga practice with a few of the wonderful insights I have picked up here in Pune. And I will be working hard to save up for my next visit!

I hope you have enjoyed these few blog posts. I will leave you with a gallery of photos (mostly of motorbikes and food!) and memories from my month here in Pune.

 

Free Time in Pune

The program for studying at RIMYI is a full one – we have classes every day except for Sundays and practice sessions daily which we are expected to attend. (It’s in these practice sessions that the fruit of all Geeta and Prashant Iyengar’s teachings and our observing of the other classes, along with our own interpretations can really manifest, so missing them is not an option for most of us that really “get” the importance and privilege of being here.) The only classes on Sundays are the two children’s classes which take place one after the other from 8am. These are fast moving and highly active and you can come out of observing them exhausted just by seeing how hard the teachers work!

So, apart from watching the local children put through their paces on a Sunday morning, we visitors to Pune have several options for our “day off” – more practice, at home this time as RIMYI is closed to all visitors for the rest of the day, catching up with our studies, visiting friends and sharing lunch, shopping or taking a day out to visit a temple or other historic site, or to go further afield to the countryside surrounding Pune. There is a also great tour called the “Pune Heritage Walk” which gives a 3 hour walking tour around the historic sites of Pune. In fact, you are spoilt for choice and my advice to anyone visiting for the first time would be to not plan too much and always allow for things to take longer than expected. If you are sensitive to bad air, always carry a mask when travelling in rickshaws as traipsing across town for longer than 20 minutes, you will be exposed to every type of vehicle emission imaginable – if you can, early morning is best when the traffic is at it’s quietest (the walking tour starts at 7am on Saturdays and Sundays). Here in Model Colony, where RIMYI is situated, the air is noticeably better than in downtown Pune and there are more trees and greenery here and a lovely park nearby where people come from 6.30am to do their exercises, and school children come and play. It’s always nice to come “home” to Model Colony where it also has a more relaxed atmosphere than some of the more built up areas of Pune city.

Krishna TempleThis Sunday at 6.30am, we visited a ISKCON temple – very interesting with lots of chanting, dancing, ceremony and beautifully dressed people. Our guide, Krishna, skilfully navigated his way with 4 of us in tow, across Pune to the south of the city, on local buses, foot and rickshaws – at one point with 5 of us in a rickshaw, plus the driver in a vehicle built for 3 passengers maximum – “Don’t worry,” they said, “It’s only 2 kilometres” and when we arrived we had to peel ourselves out one by one.

Approaching the impressive temple, we take our shoes off which go into a white bag and we receive a token to exchange for them later. Then we are instructed to wash our feet before entering the temple grounds. Our bags are searched on the way in by fierce looking female security guards who greet us with, “Hare Krishna” before going through our things with a scanner. On entering the temple itself, we see a throng of men and women with chanting and dancing and welcoming smiles. It’s a great atmosphere, they’re really having fun. Lots of prostrating going on, prayers being given at the altars and we are welcomed warmly without the feeling that we are being judged at all or expected to join in.Krishna Temple Inside

Downstairs, after the ceremony there is usually a discourse on some aspect of one of the sacred texts which we were also welcome to attend, but today it was in Hindi, sometimes it is in English, so we were out of luck – the speaker was obviously very eloquent and articulate.

Afterwards, the bookshop is open – no more books please! I already have a full suitcase and although everyone in our little group agree that we can’t possibly want more gifts from the giftshop, we have a quick look round anyway and all sheepishly come out with another “little something” – I’m a sucker for stickers and the 3d Hare Krishna welcome sticker was just too much of a temptation, although I managed to resist the cow dung and cow urine remedies for mosquito bites…
20161113_101406

Then finally, dangerously sweet chai tea and a tomato uttapa – it’s a kind of pancake with fresh tomatoes inside and a little spice. Very delicious and freshly cooked at the temple kitchen. The array of Indian sweets and cakes on offer, all baked there, thankfully didn’t tempt me this time and we left in the heat of the day back to our rickshaw journeys across town amidst the busy Sunday traffic. The atmosphere had completely changed since 6.30am and the two rickshaws we were travelling in weaved in and out of the mayhem effortlessly and without a hint of road rage or agitation whatsoever, even though there were several, what appeared to me, near misses from all directions. Despite the honking of horns, drivers in Pune are quite calm. The horn honking serves the purpose to just let you know that they are trying to over take (or under take) or to warn you to stay back in case you step out into the road unexpectedly. You could actually just set up a chair on a busy junction and watch the traffic all day, it’s an amazing spectacle of cooperation, skilful riding/driving and daredevil attempts to get somewhere fast. It’s not uncommon for someone to be driving the wrong side or even the wrong way along the road if it means they can cut corners (literally) and yesterday we even saw someone riding his motorcycle around the roundabout the wrong way to reach his exit quicker. Somehow I don’t think I’ll be hiring a car here any time soon!

20161110_091805