Steal this Moment

I need a buffer for this moment. Something to read, something to watch, something to hear. Now is too uneventful, too empty. I need something to make this moment pass.

I want to freeze this moment for all time. I never want it to end. I want to remember it forever, so I take out my camera and "capture" it. The photo will most likely languish in the cloud, but in the moment, taking it feels just right. I need something to make this moment last.

They seem like opposites, but these are two sides of the same coin: We can't seem to let the present moment BE. We're bored just sitting in the airport, or wherever, so we choose to pump the moment full of stimuli such as words, images and music. And when we're overjoyed in the moment, we never want to let it go.

"Time is the movement of moments," writes B.K.S. Iyengar. "A yogi realizes that a moment in time is timeless. A moment is singularity alone." If you are perfectly still in any moment, what do you have? Timelessness. The sense of time's passage falls away as you inhabit the eternal present. A lover's kiss, an exhilarating headstand, some personal zenith ... we've all felt this sense of perfect, potent eternality. But the paradox is that the movement of moments continues no matter how timeless the moment feels. We fall out of perfection. We come back to a different moment than the one we departed on. And life moves on.

Geeta Iyengar made a surprising connection in her opening speech at the Yoganusasanam intensive in December. She asserted that our desire to "capture" a message in the moment – in that case, by taking notes – is a form of steya or stealing. We want to steal the knowledge of the moment and make it ours. She advised us to instead practice asteya (non-stealing), one of the yamas or universal ethical codes within the eight limbs of yoga. In other words, let the moment be. What you absorb, you absorb. Let the moment pass, and let the next moment come.

I think the same is true for those moments we can't wait to escape from. Can we resist the urge to fill up the moment with external stimuli and distractions and just be there? More to the point, why would we want to? Ask yourself that. What is to be gained by letting all the emotions, the thoughts, the feelings, and the sheer awareness of the moment simply – if not easily – just be?

Yoga affords us a rich ground for both practices, which really are one and the same. Some poses we can't wait to get out of. As the body aches and tires, the mind becomes restless and we want to move on. Sometimes (OK, often) we do. I try to be more interested in what happens when I stay. What happens when I release the restlessness of the mind and inhabit the pose completely?

Similarly, in those rare and graceful moments when the pose feels completely right, something always changes. A twinge here, a correction there, a tension or a closing that comes somewhere...something always changes enough to make me fall. That perfection, so timeless yet so ironically time-bound, slips from my grasp. Yoga teaches us to let it happen. The more we practice, the better we get at letting it happen with ease and grace. Like inspiration, moments of grace in yoga come and go. So we surrender, over and over, to that ebb and flow.

Here's a practice for you:  The next time you want to steal this moment, don't. Or the next time you want to motor yourself through it on an external ride, don't. Both urges offer an entry point for self-reflection. Take it. Then see where it takes you.

Iti Yogānuāśanam

Last night, in honor of his 97th “birth anniversary,” hundreds of yoga students gathered at Govinda Gardens to celebrate the life of B.K.S. Iyengar.

He’s such a world-renowned individual that Google even released a doodle of him yesterday to commemorate the “tremendous control and discipline” exhibited by the “pioneering and deeply spiritual yogi.” Yet last night, I was fortunate enough to be around those who knew him as a person too. Senior students (our senior teachers) from all over the world told priceless tales of Guruji.

Several described him as a mystic. Many expressed that he was a human being who delighted the simple things in life, such as a walk on an empty path in nature or a ride in a fast car. As a fellow human, he was as quick to laugh and smile; as a teacher, he was quick to shout with ferocious intensity. He balanced these qualities. A word that came up again and again, which would surprise those who knew him only by reputation, was patience.

The air was thick with love (and mosquitos). Patricia Walden’s speech was infused with it (the love, not the mosquitos). She expressed a clearly heartfelt sense of wonder and gratitude in a story of being adjusted by Guruji in paschimottanasana. He adjusted her in such a way that she was brought to a state of inner silence, a loving grace “like I’d never felt before,” and a feeling of infinitude inside. I too have experienced Guruji’s touch, and Patricia’s words precisely described what I experienced. Tears of joy, the best kind, sprang from my eyes at the memory. They seemed to want to jump out and join the collective sea of gratitude.

B.K.S. Iyengar in paschimottanasana (from) LIGHT ON YOGA

B.K.S. Iyengar in paschimottanasana (from) LIGHT ON YOGA

Stephanie Quirk related his qualities of character back to the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. As someone who spent many years in Pune, Stephanie was able to observe his character over a long period of time. She said that three traits in particular stood out: The connection of śraddhā and virya, maitrī, and satya. Śraddhā is the intellectual firmness that is gained when faith, confidence, and reverence come from revelation. Virya expresses vigor, energy, potency and valor (see Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, p. 73-75). Guruji’s śraddhā was so strong, Stephanie said, that all of the obstacles to living with virya were removed. His faith in yoga was absolutely complete, and this in her estimation was what allowed him to achieve such greatness. His practice was imbued with staya, truthfulness. And he exuded maitrī, friendliness, towards all.

I was so glad to hear Stephanie and others emphasize his essence of maitrī. His reputation is so so ferocious (he was known as “The Lion of Pune,” after all) that the friendly side of him was overshadowed, at least in the popular imagination. But to me his friendliness was his most striking quality. This from one of my Facebook posts in 2013:

Guruji Iyengar’s overall being strikes me as incredibly lighthearted most of the time. He just seems so happy to be sharing his knowledge…He frequently laughs and makes little jokes. He looked at me in one of those moments, and we smiled at each other.

The highlight of the evening was the surprise speech given by Prashant Iyengar.

prashant iyengar on stage. this is the best photo my iphone 4 could manage, but i have pics from my big camera to share in future posts.

prashant iyengar on stage. this is the best photo my iphone 4 could manage, but i have pics from my big camera to share in future posts.

“The embodiment has unfathomable depth, yet we work on the periphery,” Prashantji said, urging us to take our practices deeper. He explained that although we were able to observe Guruji’s poses from the outside, we have no idea what was going on inside.

Prashantji said that Guruji conferred hundreds of teaching certificates to his students, but not once did he confer a certificate for being a good student. Imagine his patience to work with us anyway, he said. He urged us to remember Guruji’s “culture of practice” and thus do our best to be good students.

And that note, the celebration was finished. It always comes back to this: practice. Practice well, and with devotion, uninterruptedly over a long period of time (sūtra I.14, LOYSP p63). Aside from our memories, impressions and emotions, the practice is all that remains. Our practice is what Guruji would wish for us as well as how we can connect to him every single day.

Right now, as I sip the dregs of my morning coffee and finish off this post, students from around the world are gathering at the doors of the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI). Morning practice is from 9:00 to noon, and as soon as I click “save and publish” I’ll go join them.

And just like that, the 2015 Yogānuāśanam intensive is over. My colleague from L.A. said it would go by in a flash, and it has (more posts to come – I'll be unpacking this experience for a looooong time). What I could do, I did.

Iti Yogānuāśanam: That is all.  The practice remains. 

Sunrise of the Soul

Geeta Iyengar heads to the stage at yoganushasanam 2015.

Geeta Iyengar heads to the stage at yoganushasanam 2015.

The sun is coming up. As the sun rises and touches new places on the earth at every moment, I touch new horizons in my body with every breath, as Geetaji instructs us to do. Like the sunrise metaphor she employs, her teachings have the elegance of simplicity. Slow, soft inhalation. Slow, soft exhalation.

And I am there. I am the witness and the chest and the sun rising in the chest, and like the first rays of the sunrise on the skin I feel a subtle glow of indescribable beauty from the inside. The breath, like the rising sun, illuminates more and more in each moment. The dark corners of my body and my mind are suffused with tranquil incandescence. That’s the prāṇa, the breath and the life force that move as one. The citta – the chattering mindstuff, so loath to be silent – follows them quietly.

Geeta Iyengar’s prāṇāyāma classes are the best I’ve ever had. Like so many others in this throng of 1,300, I’ve come from the other side of the globe to hear her teach in metaphors like this. Soaking in these teachings is a blessing that will reverberate out into the rest of our lives like the ripples from a stone’s throw into a lake (another metaphor she used today). I can already infer that my own prāṇāyāma practice is going to change – for the better, and for good. Realizing this is a unique joy.

The intensive began with a detailed orientation lecture on prāṇāyāma and how its practice fits into the wider scheme of a complete eight-limbed (aṭaṅga) yoga practice. That lecture on its own was so rich and detailed I hope to revisit it in a future post, but the gist of it was this:  like the petals of a flower, all “petals” of a yoga practice must bloom at the same time. In other words, if a practitioner skips over any of the limbs (Guruji called them petals), what they are doing is not yoga. I want to do yoga. If you’ve made it this far, chances are you do too!

So, how does one do yoga? Simply put, you do it in order, even though each petal intercommunicates with all other seven. This morning Geeta likened the upper limbs of aṭaṅga yoga to zooming in like a camera lens. Each limb or petal draws you further and further inward. The yamas and niyamas (moral and ethical practices) train you to look at yourself and your behavior. In a way, practicing these is the beginning of taking responsibility for your own experience. Asanas (postures), as Geetaji told us today, teach you how to begin to look inward with your eyes open, and prāṇāyāma (the breathing practice) teaches you how to look inward with your eyes closed. The senses follow this migration inwards (pratyahara, the fifth limb). All five of these limbs prepare you for the last three, which are so interconnected that they are often described as one continuous flow of experience.

Geetaji used the example of meditating on the heart. In dhārāṇa (concentration), you are aware of your heart and its surroundings. In Dhyāna (meditation), your awareness is one-pointed and it dwells inside the heart. In samādhi (absorption, bliss), you are nowhere. You are beyond the heart – even as you are at one with it.

Zooming out a bit, it is clear to me that there are many stages to go through in order to get to this experience, just as there are many warm-ups and stages before getting yourself into an advanced yoga pose. I’m glad to have the inspiration. I may not know where I’ll end up, but at least I know where I'm headed. For tonight, at least, that is enough.

India 2015: The Journey Begins

I’m only just boarding the plane to Mumbai and it’s starting already:  The sea of stares. Hundreds of inscrutable eyes are on me. For me, that’s daily life in India. Can I blame them? Not really. Staring is culturally relative, and anyway I am the only western woman on this plane. Right now I don't mind. I am on my way to India! All I can think of is how happy I am to be coming back. By now – my fourth time – India feels like a kind of homecoming. Like its ubiquitous incense and birdsong, India itself has traversed my senses and lodged itself in my heart.

Being in India is challenging in ways that I’ll relay in future posts, but overall, I love it.  I love the solitude, the time away from my routines and responsibilities. I love the swaths of empty time I can fill up like the blank pages I fill with words. Yoga and words, sphinxlike stares and many smiles – that is my life here, interspersed with smoggy rickshaw rides, piquant foods and lots of rest. 

In India, I steep like a tea bag in the masala spice and flavor of it all. I attempt to penetrate into deeper layers of understanding. Geeta Iyengar’s teachings are heavenly for this. Somehow she is the very best at bringing my wavering attention ever further inward. Especially during prānāyāma (the yoga breathing practice), her wisdom shines like a diamond. Her teachings coax me into the intricacies of body and breath.  She effectively draws me toward the boundless silence within, the state of yoga, yogaḥ cittavṛtti nirodhaḥ, in which all thoughts cease save for absorption in the moment of observing, doing and being. It’s grahītṛ grahaṇa grāhyeṣu, the poetic-sounding moment when “the yogi realizes that the knower, the instrument of knowing and the known are one, himself [or herself], the seer. Like a pure transparent jewel, [s]he reflects an unsullied purity.” (Sutra I.41, B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali.) The quietness of the mind opens up the possibility for direct understanding of the soul’s resplendence – the yoga gold, if you will. :-)  I live for these moments.

This trip to India already feels different from my previous three. I’ve advanced in my teaching, both through experience and external markers. I am much more of a teacher now than I have ever been. I am here to uplevel not only my personal practice, but also my service. I serve myself for myself, and also so that my Self may serve others by guiding them on their own journey of transformation. Geeta’s teachings travel through me, taking on the tint of my expression while (I hope) retaining the essence. I take her lessons in and in and in, so I can absorb and express them in ways from which (again, I hope) my students will derive benefit.

This feels like an honor and a responsibility at the same time, and indeed it is, highfalutin though it may sound to describe yoga teaching this way. And when my ego swells – when I begin to feel proud or feel like “I have done something” – I think of the Iyengars, Guruji, Geetaji and Prashantji (“ji” is an epithet that denotes honor. Guruji is the late B.K.S. Iyengar; Geeta and Prashant are his two children who also teach). All three of them have lived lives of dedication to yoga, devotion to God, and service to their students. All three are eloquent writers of international renown. But they have not let name or fame change them. They remain steady in their practices, steadfast in their commitments, simple in their ways of living, and somehow apart from – but not above – the turmoils of this world. They have compassion for all of its inhabitants, yet they retain the sense of equanimity that can only come from a devoted spiritual practice. I admire those qualities. I too want to live like that. And so I guide myself to remember that it is not about me or my journey. It is about the yoga itself:  How can I improve my practice? My learning? My teaching? How can I improve not just for my own benefit, but for the benefit of all who would learn yoga from me…and even for the benefit of all beings that come into contact with me?

And that, dear reader, is what this journey is all about. I look forward to sharing the insights as they come.

Blogress, Not Perfection

Launching a website is like yoga itself: I find that I have to dedicate myself to the work itself rather than the results. Who knows how this new site will be received? Not I. Who knows when I'll (insert advanced asana achievement here)? Not I! 

The ancient scriptures (the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, the Bhagavad Gita) teach us that we are to devote ourselves to work for the sake of the work itself. We should dedicate the fruits of our actions to the divine. We must release our expectations and attachments to the outcome in order to be open to receive the rain of grace that may fall when we relinquish control.

I'll admit, it's hard for me to do. When I do something, I want to know what the rewards for my efforts will be, to know for sure that they will come. Usually, I believe that they will. But I release all attachments to when, what, how, through whom, and to what extent. The only thing I know is the why: Yoga is why.  Should any rewards come my way – from the website/business launch or the practice itself – yoga itself is the cause, the occasion for gratitude, and even the result itself. And I'll have to keep going, for even the highest attainments must be relinquished in order to reach the goal. I hope I'm up to the task! Let's see. Good thing I have the rest of my life to work on it! I wish the same for you, dear soul. Blessings on your way.