When I started practising Iyengar yoga 6 years ago, it was to placate my good friend Kim who urged me to join him at yoga classes and to get some physical benefit from the asanas (postures). How that journey has changed. It quietly evolved into a pursuit of wholeness and oneness with the self and the world around me.
The trip to India has accelerated this pursuit. Attending the yoganusasanam (akin to a convention) in December in Pune, India, was an experience to hold onto forever. To go back to the source of Iyengar yoga was a privilege. We were taught by the late BKS Iyengar’s daughter Geeta Iyengar who is a world renowned figure in the yoga fraternity. Out of respect, I will refer to Geeta as Geetaji. She was assisted by many very experienced teachers, particularly her niece, Abhijata Iyengar.
Every morning, before we began with the long-held asanas, we chanted the sacred sound of om (aum) and said the invocation to Patanjali (below; he is regarded as the propounder of yoga philosophy), as is the case with classes back home. It is a very powerful but calming sound to hear over 1 200 practitioners from every inch of the earth chant and say the invocation in unison. It was as if peace reigned supreme and the world was whole. Yoga does indeed unite.
Yoga has 8 limbs as written about by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras and who lived in India around the 5th century before common time. Geetaji in the main focused on the limb of asanas, then towards the end of the yoganusasanam, pranayama (breathing) and for a brief session on the final day, dhyana (meditation) holding true to the belief that meditation cannot be taught. That is not to say that the other limbs are not important, but the foundation of asanas is critical and without it, many of the limbs that follow including the 2 that precede it, cannot be successfully understood or followed.
The asanas each day followed a theme. In true Iyengar yoga fashion, we did not know beforehand what the themes were, as practitioners are taught not to anticipate. The focus on the present applies and what happened the day before or what could happen the next, is not to be dwelled on. One’s body and mind differ each day; to expect them to fear as they did the day before in an asana or to excel in an asana is not constructive. What matters is today and how we practice yoga today.
The first day, we focused on gruelling standing asanas. Whilst we may not have done many variations, those that we did do, were done with intensity. My legs started to shake once we got to the inverted asanas, being sirsasana (headstand) and sarvangasana (shoulder stand). The equipment or props included a new longer type of foam (which we used mainly for sarvangasana) and by the end of the week my neck bones were red and numb because the foams were so hard. With Geetaji, heard with her heavy Hindi accent and Sanskrit words pronounced with grace, guiding us from the stage, and with her numerous helpers and teachers on the floor, it was not hard to find the inner courage to push oneself although I am sure she would not be happy to hear this, as often it is her Western practitioners who start to practise with the mind i. e. the ego.
Every day included standing asanas and inversions. There was not much time after classes for shavasana (corpse pose) and we had to do this during one of the two breaks. The themes for the other days included supine asanas, lateral twists, foreward bends and back bends. Whatever the theme for the day, we always included uttanasana, tadasana, adho mukha svanasana and inverted asanas. Geetaji went into the benefits of the asanas, for the mind, body and soul. We were not just focusing on the benefits to the inner organic body – we were enriched with memories she shared of her father’s teachings and of yoga philosophy. She filled us with thoughts such as “yoga is a terrestrial system which reaches the celestial“.
Since the venue was on the edge of the city, it was wise to pre-book lunch. Each day, our food was cooked outside by an efficient team that clearly knows how to cater for large functions (think Indian weddings and Bollywood bashes). Apart from one day, the food was always Indian. It was guesswork for me because I did not know my idli from my dosa, paratha, uttapam, pav-bhaji or aloo tikki. I made uneducated guesses when dishing-up. I have probably overdosed on hydrogenated vegetable oil, refined white flour, turmeric, channa (chickpeas) and mustard seeds but all in the good name of traveling.
After lunch, we could shop or exchange currency behind the yoga venue (no Know Your Client FICA formalities and the rupee notes for exchange were kept in a rucksack) or buy a fresh coconut from a skinny fruit merchant. I bought yoga clothes and yoga philosophy books. There was also chai tea for sale and a desk with Ayurvedic doctors on hand to help with ailments. Thankfully I did not need to chat to them. I saw different coloured powders being dished-out to ailling practitioners.
Afternoons were spent on lectures covering yoga props, yoga philosophy, a question and answer session (as questions during class are forbidden) and discussing a videoed class given by Guruji some years back when woman wore leotards and men with hairy chests did yoga with no tops on. All very odd to me in that at the yoganusasanam we were encouraged to be fairly covered-up by not wearing spaghetti-strap tops although shorts were allowed. I am proud to say, I finally bought a pair of yoga bloomer shorts and wore them. My maternal grandmother must have worn these as inner garments (as they say in India) in her day.
When Geetaji began the pranayama part, it was pure bliss. By then, I was able to understand her accent better. For example, I now knew that the reference to an “armpa” was to “armpit”; what a breakthrough! Her consistently calm and even-toned voice helped me to focus on the various breathing techniques. When doing seated pranayama, it can be hard to sit in one asana for long but this is part of the path to dhyana, as this (meditation) requires the body and mind to be still. Mastering the breath helps with this. I confess to having nodded-off a few times when doing pranayama lying down. I was relieved to hear that others had too. Not an ideal response to capturing prana which also means energy and life force!
We finished classes on the Sunday. I felt very relaxed and also relieved. I had been worried that I would not be able to keep-up with the other practitioners and that Geetaji could have spotted me with her eagle eyes, and called me on stage to demonstrate how not to do an asana, poking me with her long stick. Instead, I did not fear her (I was not spotted); Geetaji was a motherly and magestic presence. She imparted her wisdom with ease and humility, together with a dose of good humour.
I feel truly blessed to have been at the yoganusasanam. Considering the general daily city chaos outside the venue, the event was organised to near perfection, including providing us with an information pamphlet instructing us to not have late nights, to cut our finger nails and not to eat spicey foods. Disobedient practitioners were called “the mob” by Geetaji.
As I type this blog, I long for another opportunity to go back to the source of Iyengar yoga and fall back into the deep-end of the energy that flows through India.
My next blog will be on Varanasi and posted in a new year which I hope will be filled with light and harmony for all.