Friday, July 27, 2012

Yoga Journey

You are bound to hear about its benefits more commonly these days. It’s so popular that you will encounter a dozen or more variations of it wherever you go. You will find no dearth of resources, articles and teachers. Someone you know or maybe a friend, or a friend of a friend or you yourself are a huge proponent of it (I know I am). It originated centuries ago and is still relevant in today’s world. If you haven't guessed it already, I am talking about yoga. The panacea, not just as a  form of exercise but as a philosophy of life, rings true to many. In essence, it is a spiritual practice of being, not doing. Yeah right, easier said than done!

Like most practices, people come to yoga to be cured of some malady, be it physical, mental or emotional. And so did I. To be rid of debilitating sciatic pain from an accident. When allopathy and physiotherapy didn’t help, my boss at that time suggested I learn yoga as he believed that it helped him with his lower back ache. So I decided to give it a try. My guru was a wonderful teacher - thorough and exacting with a good sense of humour. He taught hatha yoga and introduced me to Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. His focus was mainly on three of those - pranayama, asana and meditation. His class format seemed very natural and is something I follow to this day in my practice. But at that time, I viewed yoga as something that would teach me physical prowess and bestow sage-like demeanour. From all the testimonials I heard from yoga practitioners around me, though few and far between, it seemed to be something magical. If I practice it every day, I deduced, then I would see results that would amaze me and those around me. Nothing of that sort happened. First of all because I didn’t practice it every day. Second of all, I realized quickly that it is not a magic wand that turns people into beautiful, graceful creatures with sparkling eyes who walk around with a halo over their head. Not exactly. I understood that it is a hard practice that takes a lot of effort and time, a lifetime, in fact.

In a few months of having started my yoga lessons, I had to leave India. I continued my home practice on and off following the diligent notes I had taken during my guru’s instructions. I wanted to resume learning but didn’t find any teachers for a few years. I would manage to attend a class or two once in a rare while but didn’t grow much in my practice. And then….it’s popularity surged and there were yoga studios cropping up everywhere. My practice was sporadic to say the least, but my inspiration grew and I started seeking out resources online, attending classes and reading books on yoga philosophy. Like a sponge I soaked in anything and everything about asanas. When some of the discourses on yoga philosophy felt esoteric and beyond my understanding, I ignored it. When a few experts encouraged religious chanting, I avoided it. Instead, I kept it at the physical level - annamaya kosa (the physical sheath), the first layer in the many layers/sheaths of yoga practice. I decided that when I am ready to delve deeper into the spiritual and philosophical part of the practice, I would know.

And so my practice moved on, albeit in fits and bouts. I started exploring the different styles of yoga to see which would suit me best. Of the three styles I tried - Iyengar, Vinyasa and Power, I liked the vinyasa style the best as it seemed to teach grace in movement, like dance. Power Yoga classes were a good workout and though I came out of those sessions feeling lighter (and sometimes lightheaded), I found it hard to get to the meditative aspect of the practice. Iyengar style is demanding and I think important, if you want to understand proper alignment in asana practice.

As time went on and I had made it a regular practice, I unwittingly, moved onto the next phase - where, whenever I found myself frazzled and my mind a muddle of incongruent, disjointed thoughts, a palpable feeling that I should get on my yoga mat would arise until I could no longer ignore it. Time and place didn’t matter, bare floors didn’t matter. It was wonderful to be able to feel the need to get moving when, I remember, not so long ago, how badly I was prone to lethargy. I grabbed the opportunity and acted on it consistently enough that now if I miss a day or more of getting on the mat I feel anxious to get back on it again.

There was a lot that I gained from yoga - physically, emotionally and spiritually. To list a few ( and I will try not to sound like a quack with a cure-all salve) :  I am cured of sciatica; have a better immune system; learnt the mindful approach to eating and motivation to be physically active - both of these, by the way, contributed to losing a few unhealthy pounds; more aware of emotions; understand that behaviour patterns can be learnt and unlearnt (through samskara); an overall sense of well being, not to mention that I am a better person to be around. None of these happened overnight and neither are they a given for the rest of my life. This is where I find myself now. It’s a much better place than I have ever been in, in all these years of my life. And I attribute all of these to my practice.

That is not to say that I am an expert now and that I breeze through practice with little effort and fewer challenges. Just the opposite, in fact. There is so much more to learn and to my surprise, instead of evading them, I have (uncharacteristically) ploughed through them. Here are a few challenges that I have encountered along the way......

  • Getting on the mat/newspaper/bare floor..whatever :
One of my favorite yoga teachers always started the practice with intention. She would give an anecdote, wonder what its message was and engage us to ponder. Nothing definite or profound, just an observation and an invitation to keep an open mind. It’s a beautiful way to start the practice. It helps me to disengage myself to the expectation of how I should look in an asana and instead let the energy flow. And when I find myself at times setting a more egotistical intention of holding a stable headstand a little longer than usual, I have learnt to accept that as well.

  • On the mat:
Until I started a regular practice, I was blissfully ignorant of the many struggles I would face on the mat. I found out that it is always easier to keep my focus when I am learning a new asana or a routine or when I am following a teacher’s instruction. But once I get comfortable enough and get the routine/asana down pat, my practice switches to auto-pilot and my mind embarks on a sojourn. It ricochets effortlessly from one thought to another and before I know it the innocuous ‘what do I pack for my my kids’ lunch?’ ends up in me ruminating over where and how to travel next for the long weekend that is months away. So by the end of it when I am ready to sit for meditation, it feels like my mind matter has gone through a hadron collider, or so it feels:-) Essentially, the time that I am supposed to consciously and mindfully move to better prepare for meditation never happened. But like in any practice, there are good days and bad days. There are days when I wonder when exactly I had relinquished control to my monkey brain and then there are days when I can observe these random thoughts, and let it go. The key is to show up on the mat every day and be open minded about what you might find out about yourself.

  • On the mat in a class:
It is such a hard habit to beat - the drive to do better than the person next to you in a yoga class.  I am aware that I push myself harder and lose my intention of the practice. So to avoid being caught in the game of one-upmanship, I try to cheat and pick an obscure corner for my mat. But if the room has mirrored walls, then forget it, the battle is on. If it is not the teacher, then it’s the voice in your head that constantly reminds you not to compare yourself to those around you and thereby inevitably either judging yourself or others. It is another aspect of my practice that is a work in (snail-paced) progress. On days when I walk out of class with wobbly legs I know I pushed myself harder to satisfy my ego :-)

  • Off the mat (onto the world)
Learning a new skill without a steady guidance of a guru is daunting, but instead of being engulfed in a feeling of trepidation and an overwhelming sense of all that I am yet to learn, I embrace this opportunity and interest to dig deeper and look forward with excitement to the lessons I learn every day on my mat - both implicit and explicit. Whatever I have absorbed, spills over onto my daily interactions and attitude. It might be minuscule and barely noticeable a lot of times, but the shift in my inner compass is much more discernible.

  • Meditation
It used to be excruciating to sit still even for a couple of minutes. I would imagine the clock ticking and would always find myself counting the seconds with my breath. This is an area of my practice that I find most wanting and the one aspect of my practice that is compromised when I am rushed for time. I maybe able to sit still longer now and be able to go into it without expectations. But there is so much more to learn and the best part is that it can all be done by sitting still and breathing :-)

You will find a million resources on pranayama, asana and meditation and other disciplines of yoga. This post’s intent is not to impart instructions nor is it to endorse or denounce any yoga styles, but to share with you my yoga journey and how my practice has evolved (in my eyes) over the past 15 years. I have found it to be a secular practice that can be tailored to your physical and spiritual needs. It is a wonderful conscious way to work through inadequacies, physical or imagined and I hope you find encouragement to continue (or start) your yoga journey and be dazzled by its effects - halo or not :-)


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