A prop is first and foremost a teacher

Abhijata and IyengarThis was the first afternoon presentation of the conference. Abhijata introduced the session with images of the many ways that we support and participate with one another. We seek support to grow, for guidance (a child and teacher), for emotional support (hands of an older couple clasped together) and physical support (a blind person being led and rock climbers wall hooks). Life is ripe with ways that we give support and are supported. Abhijata is an excellent orator, and I was able to type quickly. This post covers just a small portion of her presentation, but I am able to give you her words.

“The story of props is one of evolution; that started in 1924 and continues now.” Form the time when Guruji first arrived in Pune he sought ways to help his students. She recounted how one day Guruji was strolling down a road and saw a roller bin that smooths the roads. He lay down over the roller and thought that it might be helpful. When he returned home he found a water drum (at that time there was no running water, she added). He then called a wood worker to fashion what we now call the Viparita Dandasana bench.

“One day a VIP, the principle of Fergusson College came and asked Sundaraj (Iyengar’s first name) for help. It was 1937, this man was 85 and could barely walk. Now, most people might suggest that this man go and do something else, not yoga!” Abhijata is a charismatic speaker, and we were all enthralled.

“So, Sundararaj thought that he would make this old man do standing poses lying down.” Abhijata explained; “He tried to get him down on the floor. Once the principle was prone, his tried to spread his legs apart. But the man’s legs kept coming back together. So he put a rod between the legs. Now, this is a big shift, to take the standing poses lying down. Some might say that this was an aberration, but Sundaraj wanted to help the school principle. This was the beginning to the use of props. With this story, Sundaraj put an end to the idea that yoga could not be done by older people.”

Abhijata then discussed our notion of giving help, how do we really support one another. “In general, when we see someone who is having problems, we feel sympathy, and we want to help. However, props have not come about because of sympathy; they have come about through empathy. You have to put yourself into their shoes and see what they are going through. Patanjali makes no mention of sympathy, what he refers to is 1.33: Maitri (friendliness), and Karuna (compassion towards anyone who is in “dukha”), this is empathy.”

“A prop is an upholder, a support. In India, the sage would have a vision of a mantra, and they would then take Darshana (deep contemplation) and come to understand the meaning. For us, Guruji has given us the props to take Darshana on the poses.”

Abhijata next demonstrated several ways that she practices Ardha Chandrasana. Using a trestle (also known as a horse), she placed her lifted leg over the top rung of the trestle and braced her standing leg against its end. The touch of the trestle on her lifted leg guided her as to where she was not extending. She next took Ardha Chandrasana at a right angle to the trestle and placed her lifted leg knee on the top rung. A weight was placed on her foot. This drew the inner knee in line with the rest of her leg. Otherwise her knock knee projected out. She showed several other ways that most of you readers probably are more familiar with, facing away from the trestle with a stool support for the leg and then facing the trestle. The touch of the trestle guided the alignment of the legs, back, and knees.

“So the prop is not there to help you, it is not there to support you; it is there to inform you, like a good teacher. The prop gives you courage, it gives you confidence. Guruji always said that you must first instill in your students courage and confidence, for the students will then take up the path of yoga.”

“Guruji made the prop lively, it is not an external thing to use as support, it was to be an extension of you. People may say that we can become dependent on the props. If you are caught up in the physical framework, then yes, you might. But if you use the prop to inform your practice, then it becomes a teacher. “

In closing, Abhijata framed the use of props in the bigger context of Yoga Sadhana. If props can inform and guide us to connect and feel what is really happening, we can then communicate within the body to adjust and improve our pose. This process is how we continue to refine, integrate and deepen our perception in the poses and in life in general.

“We say that yoga is union, but before union we must first connect, and then communicate, then integrate, and there can then be union.” -Abhijata

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Gravity and the heart

Padmasana210Guruji’s writings will seed lifetimes of contemplation. This summary of Eddy Marks’ talk at Yoganushasanam includes my own midnight musings.

“Intelligence is in every cell in the body, but dormant. You have to learn how to tap it.”

Some of this material can seem elusive. Eddy began by giving a practical application of this quote. Gravity is always with us, he said. As yoga practitioners we are always negotiating with gravity, folding into gravity or lifting up away from it. We have to learn to work efficiently with it so that there is vitality in the body. He called Jordi Marti (Spain) onstage.

He wanted to compare the relationship of the arms with the plumb line in the body relative to the effect of gravity. Eddy asked him to take Urdhva Hastasana. Jordi first pretended to have stiff shoulders. He did not take his arms vertically up. His arms were in front of his body and his upper back rounded, like a stiff person. Eddy explained that, in this case, gravity would win, as the muscular effort to hold the arms up was excessive. This would be an exhausting practice. He next asked Jordi to take the arms alongside the ears so that the plumb line of the arms ran even with the elongation of the spine. Echoing Geetaji’s instruction from that morning, he told Jordi to extend from the bottom armpit all the way through the elbow and to keep going. Open the armpits! The shape began to light up with vigor. Here, there was little muscular effort and the action of the arms opened the shoulder. Finally Eddy asked Jordi to take the arms behind the ears. In so doing, he had to dig the shoulder blades into the body and open the chest. Now, Eddy said, “your existence is felt in the chest.” The position of the arms behind the plumb line worked with gravity to draw the back body in toward the front body. While it’s challenging, it’s exhilarating as well. The position of Jordi arms created a vibrancy that presented his inner being as the chest opened.

Building on an image Zubin introduced in the previous presentation, Eddy said that most of us practice as if we are on a life raft, trying to survive rough waters, rather than navigating a ship. Guruji’s practice, however, was akin to a submarine. A submarine is high tech, efficient, and able to travel great distances. Guruji had cultivated such intelligence in his body where he could use minimal effort to achieve great benefits. He fanned the spark of his innate intelligence into a flame that he could readily tap into. Anyone who studied with him knew the heat of his inspiration.

Eddy’s talk sparked my creative juices. I have always been fascinated with an idea that gravity is not limited to Einstein’s theory of relativity, “what goes up must come down” (very very simplistic here). The gravity we are most familiar with draws from the center of our planet, even though our direct experience with it may be a linear “what goes up must come down”. So gravity really is centrifugal.

Our mind generally “gravitates” toward sensory stimulation and gratification, and we seem to have little control. With the will to cultivate particular attitudes and behavioral patterns we can change these instinctual impulses. So just as the earth has its elemental gravity, our mind has its instinctual gravity. We can refine and transform the reactive mind into a benevolent and skillful one through the ethical, physical, sensory and reflective practices inherent in yoga Sadhana.

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities in the master mind there are few.” (Shunryu Suzuki) This iconic statement encapsulates Guruji’s practice and Eddie’s presentation. Intelligence knows; there is no further vacillation between likes and dislikes, preferences and prejudices.

I believe that there is a gravitational pull towards all things relating to the heart and its attributes. It is as if the heart is the epicenter of our own planet, and we are naturally drawn toward it. Sutra 25 in the third pada of the Yoga Sutras says that one understands the nature of consciousness by contemplating the heart. The heart can plummet into depths of despair and we feel a heart ache. It can reach the highest heavens when in love or when captivated by great art. These extremes mirror our daily existence, and it can be exhausting to bounce around in these emotions.

Sutra 33 in the first pada says that consciousness becomes benevolently disposed when we contemplate the qualities of friendliness, compassion, joy for the virtuous and equanimity towards adversity. We no longer suffer inside a turbulent mind, and yet we will still recognize the vibrancy all around us. The mind becomes quiet, knowing, intelligent, and the heart will rest.

Eddy’s presentation was truly inspired, and it nourished my own inquisitive mind and heart. This is what Guruji meant when he asked us to build a community and grow together.

I have known Eddy for over thirty years. He is a veteran of RIYMI. Senior certified and living in Hawaii, he travels to teach and frequently spends long bouts in Pune studying with the Iyengar family.

 

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Yoganushasanam 2015: Exposition on Quotes by Guruji

Guruji188Inspiration is precious, whenever it presents itself. Guruji’s life story, his practice, his teachings, and his pithy sayings will continue to stimulate us to aspire and study. Now that he no longer graces us in this material plane, we can circle around his words and works to reflect on his Sadhana and the pointers he left along the way. Guruji was very prolific. While his seminal books, Light on Yoga and Light on Prānāyāma are very pragmatic, many other works are filled with imagery and verge on being poetic. How else can one describe an experience that is intangible and transcendent? Left with a goldmine of material, we begin to revel in the meaning behind Guruji’s writings.

In this presentation, Patxi Lizardi (Madrid), Birjoo Mehta (Mumbai), Zubin Zarthoshtimanesh (Mumbai)  and Eddie Marks (Hawaii) shared their musings on three of Guruji’s quotes. I will post a summary of each over the next few days. The first of Guruji’s quotes considered was:

“Yoga is not a religion but the science of religion which makes you understand your religion better.”

Patxi opened with a very personal story of his quest “to feel the absolute close to his inner being”. At an early age he entered the seminary, only to turn his back on organized religion several years later. He began practicing yoga earnestly in his twenties, and realized that he was gradually being transformed. What changed? He wondered. “My sense is that the aspiration to become a better person and the aspiration towards infinity is engraved in the center of the heart, as if it is a remembrance of the primary unity inscribed in the heart.” Mystics understand this, he noted.

All cultures recognize or embrace some form of the numinous or sacred realm of experience. Man has pondered these questions since the beginning of time, and it is not surprising that this question about yoga pursued Guruji throughout his life. Guruji was a deeply devoted and religious person, but he understood that religiousness of the heart and the expression through organized religion and society are often not the same.

In Astadala Yogamala vol 6, pg 168, Guruji says: “the practice of yoga is a guide that leads man to a higher level then where he is.” Patxi continued with Astadala Yogamala, vol 2 pg 45: “honest, sincere, intensive and intelligent practice makes one ascend the ladder of realization. In the true sense this becomes a religious life.” Yoga prepares the ground for an experience of a religious being and gives a depth to understand religiousness, Patxi explained.

There are two kinds of religious experience, he continued. There is the realization of the self, where there is no particular form of worship. One the other side, the practice is a particular form of relationship with a particular God.  Yoga, he explained, enables us to connect with the religious attitude, the deepest part inside each of us that enables everyone to understand their religion even better.

In these days Guruji’s statements are crucial. “Yoga is not a religion in the sense that you ask, but it embraces everything in life.” “Yoga is a universal religion.” “You are seeking the truth, and I am seeking the truth. It is universal as long as you do not color it. Let yoga be a religion of humanity.”

Patxi’s presentation showed the depth of his life long quest to realize, in his words, the unity inscribed in the heart. Sutra 35 in the third chapter of the Yoga Sutras says that one understands the nature of consciousness by contemplating the heart. Perhaps the heartbeat of the religious experience referred to by mystics and poets is the “ground of being common” to one and all.

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Reflections from Pune: Yoganushasanam conference

IMG_2327The second Yoganushasanam conference opened with a majestic invocation by Guruji’s personal priest, Nataraj Shastri. Geeta then explained the relevance of this prayer by summarizing Ashtanga Yoga, and the eight petals of the Yoga sadhana.

The prayer described how the goddess Lakshmi is the wealth in and of Prakriti (nature); she is everything around us. While Alakshmi signifies the impurities that keep us attracted to external sensory stimulation and gratification.  (In Sanskrit, the negative or opposite facet of something is implied when the word begins with an “a”. For instance, himsa is violence, while ahimsa is non-violence). In every engagement we have a choice to act “out” and find immediate gratification through external sources. We can also act “in” and direct our actions toward recognizing and removing the impulses that keep us wanting to fulfill desires that are fleeting and ultimately unrewarding.

This requires discipline: Yoganusasanam. “We need to govern ourselves from within.” She stated. This is an organized process whereby we adjust moral, ethical and physical aspects to cultivate a discerning and skillful mind. Many of us familiar with Ashtanga Yoga have found that this “governing” is a gradual process; one whose benefits we recognize over time by a lack of inner distractions, or, as Geeta noted, impurities. It is not that we “find” some inner peace, but we realize that we are no longer troubled, or not as much!

“Our soul is unseen as it is curtained by our ego- we lack the sensitivity to feel the lord within us. The soul has the covering of the specs, like goggles to save our eyes from the sun. In yoga we remove the specs so that we are completely open to the Purusha, that light that is within us.”

“Yoga is the process of how we throw the light inside. We have to come to the yogic mind.”

Geeta then gave examples for these moral and ethical practices, many of them particular to our yoga practice. Aparigraha means to not hold on (note the “a”), or we will never let go of the many things that are ego based. For instance, when we turn sixty we want to look forty (I must admit to being exposed on this one). She chastised us yoga teachers for the pride we presumably assume when our students pass assessment. This is akin to Asteya, or non-stealing, for it is the student who has done the work. She noted that the craving to upgrade certificates should stop, and the focus should be more on practice.

“The body is so tense, it is taxed. All this has to go. The passions, the attachments, involving yourself in this world excessively – the asana gives you the opportunity to go inside.”   

“In the asana, you can see the toes, the thighs, this may seem physical, but it is the outer sheath. This is a difference in understanding; the outer is the front door to the inner. Through the outer body the inner body has to be adjusted. The inner body you have to introduce to your mind, to your intelligence. Awareness is like the rays of buddhi.”

There is a natural progression upon following the external (ethical, moral and physical) limbs or petals of this system; we are drawn into a reflective and quiet state. This is the “sadhana” of Yoga, the true purport of the practice. “Awareness is like the rays of Buddhi”, awareness becomes the light of inner wakefulness.

The schedule in this conference is different than last years’. The first day will focus on asana, followed by three days of asana and pranayama, and closing with two days of asana, pranayama and dhyana (absorption or meditation). Geeta explained that the schedule was created to keep us absorbed in the practice. There are no big lunch breaks or time to run around town. She wants us to govern our time, energy, and focus.

You have to look into how you experience this process. So how will you manage your body, mind, chitta, energy, this is what the conference is, and the background of yoga, the “Anushasanam”.

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connecting with the elemental fabric in our body – 01-Apr-16 at Triyoga Camden

connecting with the elemental fabric in our body

Fbday 2012rom the Prasna Upanishad: “What powers support this body? Which of them is manifested in it? And among them all, which is the greatest?”
The sage replied: “The powers are space, air, fire, water, earth, speech, mind, visions and hearing. All these boast, “We support this body”.

In this series of workshops we will explore how different elements support and condition the body and mind through asana. Yoga practice mirrors natural forces and adds the power of awareness. As the Tao Te Ching says: “Let stability be the source of your lightness; Let stillness be the source of your actions.” By understanding the elements at play in your body and mind, yoga practice become the dynamic balance of polarities.

pranayama: vitality + tranquility
fri 01 apr 16 – 19:45 to 21:45 – all levels welcome

Prana is a resonance that permeates all of life. When we quiet down, we can access this vital life energy to explore and focus it in different ways. In this evening we will use a restorative practice to reduce tension and open the body before introducing breathing techniques to prepare for seated pranayama.

You will learn how the position of the abdomen, chest and limbs effect the expression of energy in the body. First with supine and supported postures to enable a separation between the abdomen and chest, you will learn how to define and quiet the diaphragm to still the nervous system. This is the essential state from which pranayama can begin, when the body, breath and mind are quiet. On leaving the workshop, you will have learned how to begin your practice at home.

stability in standing poses: the element of earth in your bones
sat 02 apr 16 – 10:00 to 12:30 – all levels welcome

Tadasana is the root and foundation from which the standing poses build strength and determination. Our bones connect us with this earth element. This session will introduce and cultivate sensitivity on how to work through the bones in standing poses. We will work with variations of classic postures that are beneficial for issues with your hips, knees, shoulders and spine.

We are each different, and this workshop will help you understand your unique arrangement of bones. How your shin bone aligns with your thigh bone will affect your knee, hip and back. The stretch and spread of the skin on the foot effects the ankle and up into the rest of the body. This is essential for the health of a life long practice.

open to the universe: backbends will challenge, grace + release
sat 02 apr 16 – 14:00 to 17:00 – for experienced practitioners

Be humble, for we are made of the earth
Be noble, for we are made of the stars (Serbian proverb)

With the feet and attention firmly rooted into the element of earth, we can expand, lift and open into the nobility of backward extensions. Stability, strength and skill will enable you to approach standing drop overs.

A progressive sequence with supported and active back extensions will help you isolate different parts of the spine, shoulders and psoas, and strengthen and elongate the front of the body. We each have a different shape, and one preparation or set-up may be more effective for you than another. Come to study, learn and practice.

For students who are able to push up off the floor into Urdhva Dhanurasana.

cultivating expansive awareness: the element of space
sun 03 apr 16 – 10:00 to 12:30 – all levels welcome

Savasana becomes the seed to explore how you can remain alert while resting deeply. This is the ultimate practice, to connect an attentive, reflective mind with the sensory body of awareness so that you feel how energy percolates throughout your being. Supported back and forward bending, twists, and breath all contribute to this elegant practice.

beyond hip openers: eka pada sirsasana
sun 03 apr 16 – 14:00 to 17:00 – for experienced practitioners

Do you ever wonder what lies beyond hip openings? Kurmasana is just the beginning of deep forward extensions that require suppleness in the hips. These asanas can relieve back pain and internalise focus to create deep peace.

Deep forward extensions require supple hips. Many seated postures along with arm balances focus on the hips. This workshop will show you how to isolate, strengthen and release the outer hip, deep hip joint, gluteal and inner thigh muscles.


All classes at TriYoga Camden – 57 jamestown road, london, nw1 7db, uk (google map)

For more information, or to sign up, please visit:
http://www.triyoga.co.uk/book-courses-workshops?x=1&teacher=100000963
email info@triyoga.co.uk, or call +44 020 7483 3344

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Living with Your Spine in Backbends: Nov 7th @ InYoga in Valley Village

Living with Your Spine in Backbends

Sat Nov 7, 2015, 2pm – 5pm

180The natural curves of the spine allow for easy mobility in the neck, shoulders, arms and legs, while providing support for the internal organs. Over the years, these curves often become either exaggerated or diminished: the lumbar spine sways and thoracic spine rounds – or both. Many people think they shouldn’t – or can’t – do backbends because of pain or discomfort. You can, if you learn how to do them intelligently.

Your body is pliable and will adapt to whatever shape you frequently assume. This is a good thing! For you can restore your spine’s natural curves and build a new body once you understand and apply techniques that work for you. In this way, backbends can be therapeutic by helping to restore the natural curves of the spine.

In this workshop we’ll review several different kinds of back pain and their symptoms, learn how to appease and avoid pain, and how to regain strength and health while we practice to prepare for sage backbends. What works for one kind of back pain or body type may be counter-indicated for another. Be a wise yoga student!

All levels are welcome.
To register for this workshop, please visit http://goo.gl/9r2JYD.
For more information, please visit http://goo.gl/w1xJ4A, email info@inyogacenter.com, or call +1.818.508.8040.


Date: Sat Nov 7, 2015, 2pm – 5pm
Location: In Yoga Center
5142 Laurel Canyon Blvd (Google Maps)
Valley Village, Los Angeles, CA 91607

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Gems of the Gita: Oct. 18th at Rising Lotus in Sherman Oaks

Gems of the Bhagavad Gita Revealed Thru Asana

An afternoon of twists, technique, and the timeless art of yoga

lisa-walford-gems-of-the-gita-oct-18-rising-lotusYoga is skill in action, Yoga is evenness of mind. These gems encapsulate yoga practice as it is expressed in the poetic and timeless verses of the Gita. Parvirtta Trikonasana, along with other twists, can be used to release pain the back, and to help with gastric/abdominal conditions and much more. Intention, direction and process help build an understanding of skillful means while experience and practice deepen insight and equanimity. Lisa will invoke additional slokas from the Gita during the workshop.

All levels are welcome.
To register for this workshop, click here.
For more information: please email info@risinglotusyoga.com, call 818.990.0282, or visit risinglotusyoga.com.



Date: Sun Oct 18, 2015, 1pm to 3pm
Location: Rising Lotus Yoga
14148 Magnolia Blvd. (Google Maps)
Sherman Oaks CA 91423
Download the PDF of the workshop flyer here.

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Birjoo Metha on working with the elements

Birjoo-in-HK-headshot-254x300When I first heard that Birjoo Mehta was going to dedicate a whole conference to working with the elements, I was elated.  Along with many others, I  am fascinated with the idea of how the element of water, air, earth or fire could augment or deepen my practice. I am equally aware of how the yoga marketplace can create generic templates of these ideas. New teachers seeking the latest popular or “authentic” experience often mimic the words without having the years of practice or the benefit of a good teacher to initiate them through the layers of perception that support the “deep” experience. So I was both excited and interested in how he would introduce this subtle body level of practice.

Birjoo began referring to the third pada of the Yoga Sutras, and said that “when the gross body perceives the form of the gross, it can perceive the subtle. When you have transcended the elements, you will go from the gross to the subtle body.” He dove right into the layering of perception inherent in the Samkhya system, and the backbone of the Yoga Sutras. “When you have transcended the senses, you will have a sense of the self that is not limited to the senses.”

Many yoga practitioners study the first two chapters of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which are rich with techniques to improve one’s general life style and reactivity, but somewhat general on specifics. Few study the “vinyasa,” or step by step process of internal transformation delineated in the third chapter. This is where Birjoo began his explanation of how and why we would work with the elements. But he started with the big picture. I have always admired Birjoo’s ability to put everything into a context that makes sense to me!

When the mind is involved with mundane things, you do not see the mind. When mind is involved with samvritti the mind is calm. Samvritti is awareness of consciousness not moving. – Birjoo’s commentary on Sutra III.9

The third pada begins by explaining the last three  of the eight limbs in Ashtanga yoga, considered the internal limbs, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. Together, these three are called Samvritti. Here Birjoo referred to the mind, how to tame the wild and reckless mind, how to transform a personal myth of identity and separation, the duality of seeing things as separate, into a quiet mental state. These stages and process are called Parinamah, transformation.

The senses overpower our perception, so that we think that everything we experience is what is. But the senses are only one perspective. The Gita and the Sutras say that the purpose of yoga is to conquer the senses, rather than be ruled by the senses. Observing the breath, transcending the breath, observing the mind, transcending the mind, observe consciousness, transcend the consciousness.

It is the senses which are cheating us into feeling that we are what we are. My stomach does not say that it is the stomach, nor the heart, they are part of an eco-system. Similarly, the world is an eco-system, when there is suffering in the transcendent ecosystem, there is unhappiness. When there is a sense of only presence, there is happiness. When something is taken away from us, we are unhappy, there are pieces. – Birjoo

I am reminded of how Guruji would say that our mind is in many pieces and our body is in one piece, like a block. His body is in many pieces, connecting, coordinating, but his mind is absorbed and quiet. He would focus so deeply that he could spread his awareness evenly throughout his body and breath. The fickle mind became steady. For us, the senses are in a constant state of transition, from seeing to feeling to interpreting to judging or reacting, ad infinitum. How do we invoke presence, a steady stream of awareness?

By samyama on the elements – their mass, forms, subtlety, conjunction and purposes, the yogi becomes Lord over them all. – Light on Yoga Sutras – Sutra III.45

Through Samyama  upon the purpose of the conjunction of the process of knowing, the ego, and nature, there is mastery over the senses. – Light on Yoga Sutras – Sutra III.48

Birjoo described the attributes or essence of each element, the Tanmatres. It is through their qualities that we will come to understand their inherent nature, their eco system, and how they relate to one another. A wall is hard, he explained, if we hit it with our hand, we recognize sturdy. For the yogi, the quality is a subjective one; it comes from a feeling of the trait. So the hard wall is solid, it is of the earth element. When  I am feeling heavy, frozen, unchanging, it is a sentiment, a feeling. Firmness, stability, or sluggishness, this is the earth element.

Water reflects volume, we can balance. When the body is energizing, that is the element of fire. A light, spacious feeling: air. And when you feel space in the joints, that is ether. If the space becomes narrow, the ether trait is absent, and when it is broad, ether is present. – Birjoo

Through our practice we are familiar with the feeling of hugging a muscle to the bone, or gripping the bone. Akin to submerging a jar in a container of water, the water will touch the jar equally everywhere. We are to hug the muscle to the bone equally, back, front, and on the sides. When the container of water is tipped, the water will maintain its level with gravity, it always finds balance. So we should with the water element.

To illustrate the earth and water element, we began in Adho Mukha Svanasana. When the heels make contact with the ground, the pose is much more stable. If our heels could not touch, Birjoo encouraged us to place support beneath them. The bones are of the element of earth. The muscles would then envelope the bones, hug them, hold them. It is interesting to note a singular instruction in Light on Yoga for Tadasana, to lift the back thighs. Generally, we think of the hamstrings as flexing the leg, they are not really an effective part of a straight leg. By hugging the muscle to the bone, contracting/lifting the back thigh, it pulls the bone into the center of the thigh, akin to the jar in water. We can do the same thing with the arms in standing poses, even if they are not in contact with the ground.  Make them firm, extend through the finger joints, the bones, Birjoo said. The muscles followed suit.

Birjoo worked quite extensively with the fire element. Reminding us that the Samana Vayu abides in the abdominal area and is responsible for stoking the internal flame, Birjoo guided us through a coordination of instructions based on using the breath, the abdomen and the thoracic spine.  Over time I am sure that these instructions will  surface for you in some class or workshop. It is not my intention to “teach” what Birjoo presented, rather to introduce the foundation. There is no substitute to working with a good teacher!

Fire does not have a shape, it spreads. It does not spread uniformly. Consciousness will come here and there, unconnected. When things are going slowly, you need a spark. Sometimes, we might say that we are sluggish, but the attributes of the element of fire can ignite you, so you invoke the fire. – Birjoo

Fire can make the nerves “scratchy”, Birjoo said. As it is indiscriminate, it needs to be contained by the element of air. To snuff out a candle flame we remove the oxygen with a lid, or candle snuffer. We would not want to bring a hot element into the brain. He proceeded to guide us to the shoulders, the armpit and back shoulder area. You make a clamp of the armpits to contain the fire, the back shoulders move to the front and the front to the back. This instruction felt like a clamp, simple, firm, effective.

The element of ether creates equanimity, non-attachment, Birjoo said. By broadening the collarbones, the outermost corner of the collarbones, I felt a depth and quietness in my throat I rarely feel. Sirsasana felt completely different with this single instruction. In fact, one beauty of Birjoo’s teaching was the simplicity of presentation. This shift of emphasis felt like a domino effect, each element built upon and was integrated into each other quality.

By self-control on the changes that the sense-organs endure when contacting objects, and on the power of the sense of identity, and of the influence of the attributes, and the experience all these produce- one masters the senses. – Light on Yoga Sutras – Sutra III.46

In pranayama, Birjoo reminded us that the chest must remain undisturbed.  Samvritta is the awareness of consciousness not moving. The impressions fed to us by the sense organs will give rise to thoughts, vrittis. When there is a reduction of these impressions, the mind becomes clear.

Children are the same, babies, they are universal, as we grow we build personality, character, attributes, arising, what makes me and you different. The water freezes, the mind and ego build. With practice, diffusing consciousness, we become universal again, water transforms to steam, which permeates everywhere. When all the elements are balanced, we are submerged in the water, the water outside the bottle and the water inside the bottle are the same, and consciousness is the same everywhere. When you are completely balanced, you will expand to become the ocean. – Birjoo

There is so much more to say, but I have probably saturated you enough for one post! Many students and teachers attended the conference, and we will each represent this material through our own lens. Another post will follow soon. Much love, practice, and share!

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Guru Tattva, Birjoo Mehta on yoga after Guruji

Birjoo-in-HK-headshot-254x300I recently returned from an inspiring four day conference with Birjoo Mehta in San Diego. I hope to draft several posts to share his delightful work.

The teacher-student relationship can be an intimate and demanding one, especially when the two parties herald from different cultures. Birjoo Mehta studied with Guruji, Shree BKS Iyengar, since he was a young child. Now, in the first day of his conference on the Maha Bhutas, he began by contextualizing his teaching with a classic metaphor. We can no longer study at the feet of our guru, , but we can invoke the light of his teachings. Just as the sun illumines everything around it, the integrity of Guruji’s practice paved an approach to self-study that sweeps the cobwebs out of the most remote corners of the body and mind. It is now for us to internalize these teachings and call on the Guru Tattva within each of us.

Guru is like the sun, when he is around, all of us can benefit from his benevolence. Guru is one who makes the darkness light. Guru Tattva, essence of Guru, we see the light through the benevolence of the Guru. For we cannot see the essence of the Guru, we see his light through his teachings. The moon does not have the essence of the Guru, for the moon is a reflector. We can bask in the glory of his moon, his teachings, the reflection, or we can go to the stars and study through the essence of the Guru Tattva.  – Birjoo Mehta

Let me explain. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is based on a  cosmology rooted in the Samkhya system. One of six principal Darshanas, Samkhya is a philosophical interpretation of the laws of nature, the root of suffering, and the means to overcome suffering. Tattva literally means a “thatness”, truth, or principal. I might interpret/view the Tattvas as the yogic parallel to our modern day physics, except that the root of everything in Samkhya is consciousness. Hence, the Tattvas evolve from an all-encompassing Knowing through the most subtle form of mind out into the world of earth, water, fire, air and either that we then see, hear, taste, feel  and smell through our sense organs. Classically, there are 25 Tattvas. Birjoo poetically suggested a 26th, the Guru Tattva. How appropriate!

After Guruji’s passing, many people asked what would happen to the Iyengar lineage, the teachings, and who would take the helm. Geetaji, Prashanti, and Abhijata, the immediate members of the family well known to most of us, already teach amazingly insightful classes, meditations and wisdom practices. Those of us embedded in the Iyengar system have no doubt that the study will evolve. But of course, when the pole star disappears, there is a period of soul searching. Birjoo encapsulated these times with his words and teachings.

What an image: his suggestingthat we should now reach to the stars, each our own pole star, and invoke the essence of the Guru Tattva Then, he introduced one of my favorite slokas from the Bhagavad Gita:

What is night for the ordinary person is day for the yogi, and what is day for the ordinary person is night for the yogi.  – BG 2.69

As noted above, we experience reality through our senses of perception, and through the mind that interprets and relates everything to our internally created sense of order. This sloka implies that our “ordinary” reality is like night, or ignorance, to one who is truly awakened. It is even difficult for me to imagine what this awakened state might be like, much akin to explaining the smell or color of a rose to one who can neither smell nor see. Metaphors abound. The awakened state is akin to being the ocean rather than a drop in the ocean, or to how salt dissolves in water. The salt and water merge completely into an undifferentiated whole. This is the insight of the awakened person. This transcendence is the light of the Guru Tattva.

My take away from Birjoo’s opening welcome was to remember that Yoga is about the story of the soul. While we may practice to reduce the pain in our back, to build community, or to appease emotional suffering, ultimately Yoga is a path to freeing ourselves of all the distractions that shield us from the glory of being truly alive. I have no words to even point to what that means, for I am still in the Ru (darkness) of appearances and invoke the Guru Tattva in my daily life. Jai Guruji!

Launching the conference with this explanation, Birjoo was free to introduce his experience with the Maha Bhutas -the elements of earth, water, fire, air and space. Guruji rarely referred to the bhutas in practice, as he felt that we needed to first master how our limbs and breath worked. Birjoo relied on his own practice and a few pointers that Guruji gave in 1995 to develop his material.  The conference was truly amazing, and perhaps even more so as it showed how a senior teacher has called forth the light of the Guru as the “remover of darkness” moves on. May we all practice with such integrity, and become lights unto one another.

Most Iyengar teachers begin their classes with the invocation to Patanjali. Sometimes I add that we give thanks for the wisdom in the Yoga Sutras, and for anything and anyone who brings some insight into our lives. These are small Guru Tattvas. Those who were not graced to have known Guruji personally can study the reflection of his light through his works and his words, and can embrace every insight that remove darkness, the Guru Tattva.

My next post will explore how Birjoo delineated the story of the body, the sensations and feelings, and the greater story of the soul.

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June 21st is International Yoga Day

The Summer solstice is a fitting foundation for a celebration of yoga. Consider the Gayatri Mantra, which originally accompanied the dawn practice of Surya Namaskar. This morning ritual used the sun to symbolize the light within each individual, and the process to awaken and to live in the values of that light. As the light of the sun shines unconditionally, so the practice of yoga helps us remove the veils of habit patterns that withhold the brilliance of the deep self. Now yoga will be recognized internationally.

Here’s a video of how a world-record 45,000 Indians celebrated in New Delhi.

Below is the sequence that Geeta Iyengar suggested we practice wherever we may find ourselves. It is an excellent sequence. Please feel free to print it and practice it frequently.
international-yoga-day-2015.

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