When one looks out at the ocean, a natural horizon line is seen. The water meets the sky and the colours are contrasted one against the other. During my practice this morning, I observed the beauty of the ocean’s aqua-green against the blue-grey sky. Then the white sailboat came into view as it coasted into the thin horizontal line that had been my focus. In the same moment, I began to hear the person to my right speaking Russian loudly on her phone while the couple to my left was Face Timing with their friend on speakerphone. I tried to apply my yoga and mindfulness skills in order to stay with my practice and sustain my quiet inner focus. To pretend that this was easily accessible or without frustration would be untrue for it was a daunting task! I knew that it was attainable but was I up for the challenge? Could I move out of my own way and resist the tendency towards attaching to the external sensory distractions?
In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali – the most ancient and revered sourcebook for yoga practice – the fifth limb is called Pratyahara and it means “the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses.” The practice of pratyahara remains elusive but in this stage we make an attempt to draw our awareness away from the external world without completely losing contact with it and direct our attention internally. Keenly aware of my senses while simultaneously trying to draw my awareness from the external world and cultivate a detachment from my senses, I struggled with wanting to watch the boat across the horizon and appreciate the spectacular contrast between its whiteness and the warm colours of the ocean and sky or the birds in their magnificent v-formation overhead. I heard the conversations nearby but kept returning to my breath, counting up to sixty cycles at a time in order to not to allow the input from my sense organs to create disturbance in my body or mind. And as I tried to bring the awareness to reside deep within myself I also tried to remain in a state of non-reaction in order to still the feelings of annoyance that were arising.
The practice of mindfulness provided me with the opportunity to also observe my thoughts, judgments and frustrations without attachment. Thankfully, I persevered and was able to complete my yoga practice in a satisfying way. As with everything, life on the mat is simply a microcosm of our greater experience. On the mat we practice the eight limbs of yoga, experiment and try new things and hopefully reach to our potential. As we practice pratyahara and withdraw, we can objectively observe our habits that are the ones most likely to interfere with inner growth. Deep down I know that my old habits are deeply ingrained but I also know that if I stay with the practise and commit to all that I need, new ways become clearer to see and slowly slowly, they replace the old.
Yoga has formed the fabric of my life and includes my working philosophy. It is simply a vehicle for the process of transformation. And as my practise unfolds and evolves, I continually discover more about my self and what transformation really means. Several weeks ago my teachings included bhujangasana, or cobra pose and many of the teaching points that I presented pertained to the meaning or symbolism of a snake shedding its skin. The fact that snakes can shed their skin to allow for continued growth has always fascinated me. When a snake outgrows the skin it’s in because its skin has a limited capacity for growth and enlargement, it simply sheds the outer layer and starts fresh. Encouraging my students both young and old to embody the essence of a snake, my instructions focused on helping them to execute the pose safely and to feel the essence of a snake as it slithers along the ground, rises up or sheds is skin. My intention in fostering experiential learning and facilitating group discussion about the snake and its shedding process as a metaphor and a narrative is to inspire a personal connection to the snake. In this way, increased self-awareness can occur and a deeper idiosyncratic meaning of yoga can unfold for each individual.
My ongoing exploration of the pelvic area and increased understanding of the lumbar spine, sacroiliac joints and tailbone stoked my interest in teaching bhujangasana or cobra pose. When teaching bhujangasana, many of my instructions addressed the necessary actions to engage the correct muscles in the area as well as the inner more subtle work that involved the sacrum and tailbone. While having a massage at the end of the week, my massage therapist worked deeply in the lower back area and spoke about how strong my tailbone is. I inquired if she meant the muscles surrounding it and she agreed but also stressed that my tailbone itself was strong. She reminded me that it is my base, my truth and my stabilizer, my rudder and my guide. When I clued in on Miriam’s focus, I realized the synchronicity and underlying connection between all things! With amazement and joy, I shared with her that the snake had held intrigue and fascination for me all week.
The horizon line remains even as day transforms into night. My asana or posture may be static even as my inhalation dovetails into an exhalation. Whether we focus on a symbol such as a snake shedding it’s old skin, or identify our tendency to hold onto old habits that no longer work for us, we can recognize that the change process is not simple nor is change easy. Every moment that we are awake and aware, we can observe the ongoing process of change. We can then consciously choose to remain rigid or to embrace the opportunities for change that we are presented with. For just as the snake by natural cause sheds its skin and replaces it with a new one, we too are constantly replenishing our cells in an ongoing unnoticed process in which dead cells are continuously coming off. Even if we resist the idea of change and accept that the change process has many stages and is hard, we are indeed constantly changing. And as we practice yoga and mindfulness and learn to incorporate yoga practice including the fifth limb of Pratyahara into daily life, we embrace the truth that these processes and the various challenges that we are given are truly transformative ones and give meaning and direction to our life.
Temmi Ungerman Sears
Sutra 2.55 ”Tatah parama vashyata indriyanam.”
“Through that turning inward of the organs of senses and actions also comes a supreme ability, controllability, or mastery over those senses inclining to go outward towards their objects.”
Lying in the tent, loud thunderclaps overhead and heavy rain pounding the canvas,
one wonders what else there is to think about?
For the rain is relentless and intense and really the only thought is whether we will stay dry or not. The rhythmic loud sound is like a mantra and keeps one fully present in the moment. Camping in Zion National Park in southern Utah is a blessing. Stunning golden and salmon coloured cliffs and bare rock with distinctive ponderosa pines ring the canyon within which we remain. We spend our days hiking, creating with our cameras and relaxing with one another. Yesterday after our hike, I sprawled in the lazy river and felt the coolness of the calm green water as it gently glided over me. Yet today, the incredibly fast flowing river brings dangerous and deadly flash floods and the muddy brown water declares its unsurmountable power. Every moment in nature is an opportunity to observe constancy and change, to cherish wide open expanses, and to internalize the richness of this deeper reality. To be fully present, to go within, and experience something much greater than my self – this is in part what yoga means to me.
We become so bogged down with the incessant details of daily living – the myriad of responsibilities, distractions and stressors to be managed. These are of course a natural part of life but the tendency to equate this busyness with meaning is a falsehood. When we are distracted by the fast pace, the to do’s, the external trappings, and the ever present information, entertainment and stimulation that technology brings us, we may lose sight of what is truly valuable, including the joy and pleasure of the simple things. If we stay stuck in the web of busyness and distraction, we may potentially squander the opportunity to celebrate our lives. The celebration includes the spectacular grandeur of our daily blessings, both large and small. We must not forget to celebrate the truly important gifts that we have been given – the gift of life, our breath, our health and our loved ones.
Yesterday, seated cross-legged among the trees in shade high up in the mountains, I watched the clouds as they continually moved across the sky, dancing their own private dance with the mountain peaks. This moving palette certainly makes for a far better viewing than the massive TV screens that are a constant wallpaper in our homes, doctor’s offices, restaurants and even elevators. I meditated on the changing light and landscape, and listened carefully to the gentle breeze, the rustle of the leaves, and the song of the bird nearby. I noticed the textures and shadings of the rocks and the mountains, and I appreciated the canvas of red rock, blue sky, and green trees. My husband was nearby with his camera, slowed down by his art. Refusing to give up film, and steadied by the tripod and his mind, he was an art form in this fascinating landscape to observe and appreciate as well. Celebrating a milestone anniversary together with the start of the Jewish New Year in such a magnificent magical place as Zion, feelings of immense gratitude, contentment and love flowed through me as the Virgin River flows through this sanctuary.
Yet the challenge when I am back in my normal environment is to remember to remain cognizant of what is really important and meaningful in small glimpses and moments of time: to breathe slowly and deeply with awareness, appreciating that each cycle of breath is a gift of the Divine, indeed of life; to focus with fresh eyes on our loved ones, to truly see them and listen to them with tenderness, respect and receptivity, appreciating their uniqueness; and to be present, moment-to-moment, breath by breath, celebrating the joy and beauty of each day.
As a yogi practising my yoga in both enclosed and wide open expanses, I recognize the sacred trinity – a finely woven thread as silken and delicate as a golden one – that runs between my mind, body and spirit. This thread is my sharpened focus that enables me to set my intention to remain awakened, and to celebrate daily both the mundane and the magnificent. Of course, the challenge is more easily met when settled in such natural and exquisite surroundings. So I will try to sustain these sentiments and my commitment to remaining mindful of that which has true meaning. In doing so, I hope to remain connected to all that is important and to celebrate the many blessings that comprise my life.
Occasionally, my husband of almost twenty-five years will tease me by declaring that I am never in the moment. I think to myself, “And who is the yogi here? And who is the yoga teacher?” But when I separate his words from my ego, I get their meaning and I have to admit, if only to myself, that at times my husband is right in some of those moments in time! I am always appreciative of him and especially for his nudges and encouragement to me to keep evolving. Practising being fully present requires diligence and commitment as does remaining consistent in one’s yoga practice. When life gets in the way it is all too easy to slip from these practices but as greater symmetry is developed between life both on and off the mat, mindfulness envelops us in most of what we do. And herein lies the inspiration to keep plodding along.
For weeks, I have been struggling to figure out what feels right to write for my blog. I have missed my connection with my students through my written words, and even with myself through the creative process of writing. For during this past year various demanding situations claimed my attention and absorbed my motivation for writing, even at times influencing my yoga practice. Each challenge seemed to touch my body mind and spirit and brought me head on into the present moment. It dawned on me that writing about what has challenged me, what has sustained me, and where I am right now would make the most sense as I would then be sharing from a place of truth and honest intentions.
After returning home from travelling to India with my daughter last summer, I discovered that I had become afflicted with various intestinal issues and parasites. It took several months and various courses of antibiotics before I regained my health. My yoga practice was compromised because my body simply knew that it wasn’t interested in nor capable of moving in intricate ways. Recognizing that to everything there is a season, patience and acceptance guided me during this time of modified practise. In addition to these physical challenges, my family of origin became immersed in a very emotional business transaction. This stressful situation took an incredible amount of energy and time while I was concurrently preparing over several months for my role as a chaperone on a Holocaust educational trip. This journey was very impactful and truly dominated heart and spirit. While in Poland and Israel this spring with 300 sixteen and seventeen year old teens and eleven Holocaust survivors, we visited cemeteries, ghettos, death camps and death facilities, memorials and mass graves in forests. This was a deeply disturbing and powerful experience. As a chaperone on the March of the Living, I was responsible for the participants while simultaneously living history and experiencing these horrors through my own eyes.
On my personal march through these various transformational experiences something was required in order to manage it all. That something was my yoga. Thirty-two years of devotion to yoga practice has formed a foundation for my life and supports me with what I need in order to feel a sense of well being, wholeness and joy even while coming up against a challenge. Many of the lessons learned and the skills honed over the years from yoga practice enabled me to successfully navigate through the turbulent waters I faced during the past year. For yoga has taught me how to remain present and centered for the ride and I am able to do this because my life and my yoga merge into a single path. When I am riding on the waves I move completely into the present moment. It is my belief that in ways well beyond my comprehension, I was also being asked during the past year to simply trust in the universe and to trust in the Truth.
Processing these recent impactful situations will take a long time. However, finding my passage onto the yoga mat and back to the keyboard feeling inspired and excited, it seems that my creativity is again being sparked. This makes me very happy for I have longed for stillness and solitude and presence in moments that are unbridled with external stressors. By tapping into an authentic and honest place, I can remain true to myself, listen and nurture my spirit and sit still for my creativity to surface. Thus, yoga, mindfulness and creativity are all practices that are inextricably bound to every aspect of my life and for this I am most grateful.
“Remember, the door to the sanctuary is inside of you.”
Early this morning I heard on the radio that OHIP announced that many changes are coming to how physiotherapy services will be funded. The story focused on a 104 year old woman; however, my thoughts quickly turned to our youth and to the baby boomer population and I thought about how yoga is also such a valuable asset in one’s life. As a long-term practitioner of yoga, I understand first hand the multifaceted benefits of a sustained yoga practise over time. I have also been privy to how quickly new students derive the immediate benefits of the practise as well as seeing the ongoing effects and positive changes for students who have remained on the path for many years.
Canada is an incredible country and we have much to be proud of and thankful for. For example, with governmental support we are encouraged to begin making payments towards RESPs when our children are very young. These are worthwhile investments. Similarly, by investing time and payment towards one’s well being and acquiring the life skills that yoga teaches and reaping its many benefits, we are better equipped to maintain good health (mentally, physically and emotionally) while also engaging in preventative measures against future adverse potentialities. When we consistently practise yoga, we experience how it enhances our life today while also arming ourselves with invaluable tools in preparation for whatever future challenges we may have to face.
I often joke that my youngest student is five years old and my eldest student is 86 years young. Yoga is for all ages and stages and I have been blessed to be able to share this discipline with thousands of students over the years. Having entered my fourth decade of practise, I have observed how the yoga process has continually demonstrated its immense meaning and value for me. I can only hope and believe that for my own aging process, like good aged wine, the richness and rewards of the sustained yoga practise will improve becoming even more pleasing, developed and multi-layered because of the significant amount of time and investment that I have put in.
Don’t wait. Don’t search elsewhere because Iyengar Yoga is the finest system of yoga available today. It is highly refined, safe and thorough, and its certified teachers are the most knowledgeable and well trained in the world. Don’t go to yoga for simply a fitness class or settle for less! Forget the drop-ins; make the commitment to a full session of yoga and sign up your kids, self and loved ones to classes or private sessions at YogaBuds this fall. Surely what you put in to your yoga practise will come back in spades, and your investment towards good health will return excellent dividends. Awaken your wellness at YogaBuds today. Now is the time to invest.
Recently, during a practise on the dock comprised of some simple asanas or postures, the late day sun sparkled on the quiet lake. And suddenly, a sensation of immense gratitude flowed forth. These feelings were for the universe for having provided me with all that it had over the past few months, and in particular to B.K.S. Iyengar. Just prior to embarking on my yoga studies in Pune, India this past June, I had experienced a very disturbing process with some members of the Iyengar Yoga Association of Canada and left feeling unsettled. It wasn’t the yoga process or the Iyengar methodology that was unsettling but rather the lack of yogic behaviors that was experienced first-hand and what I perceived as an apparent disconnection to the legacy that B.K.S. Iyengar was creating for his practitioners and teachers. My decision to try to share some of this with him during my time in India was made although I wasn’t sure how he would respond. Thankfully, he answered with kindness, compassion, support and guidance, and was my teacher in every sense of the word.
It was several weeks before I began to absorb the meaning of my interactions with B.K.S. Iyengar and to really appreciate the gift bestowed upon me by him. In these late day moments during my practise on the dock, when these strong feelings of gratitude spontaneously arose from my unconscious, I was touched deeply by the experience because the feelings that surfaced were honest, raw, uncensored, and welcomed. As I sat in gratitude, tears flowed for the understanding that Grace had placed me at the Ramamami Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute at this time. The understanding had evolved that B.K.S. Iyengar, or “Guruji as he is affectionately called by his students, was now truly my Guruji, providing me with exactly what was needed – guidance and hope.
Samtosha or contentment is one of the five niyamas or personal practices that we are encouraged to use. The niyamas are one of the eight limbs of yoga. Ultimately, contentment is one’s responsibility and part of this task is to maintain a focus on the gifts that life brings us. Patanjalli’s yoga sutra “Samtosad anuttanamah sukhalabhah” tells us to cultivate contentment by bringing satisfaction to whatever unfolds and by accepting that there truly is a Divine flow of life even if it doesn’t always go according to our plans. This sutra (chapter II, verse 41) states that from the continued practise of contentment and benevolence of consciousness comes supreme happiness. This verse guides us and gives hope and joy and suggests that through following the path of contentment, happiness is indeed attainable. My experience with Guruji and my recent spontaneous response illuminates and reflects for me this sutra, and my interactions with him seem to have been connected to other things in a unified and profound manner.
During the day at different times I attempt to focus on my blessings even amidst the not so positive moments, and then to touch down and sit with gratitude even when I am not sitting down. Through our immersion in yoga studies, we learn how to remain present moment-to-moment, and to accept that which is unfolding, breath-by-breath. When we inhale, we receive the breath with an acceptance for this Divine gift of life and for what each moment offers. With each exhalation, we surrender and there is also an acceptance for whatever is occurring, including embracing equally both imperfections and perfections. When we remain cognizant of practicing samtosha or contentment, we develop the ability to remain present – and happy – with the circumstances of this moment. We become more willing to live in this present moment with acceptance of whatever it brings and to more easily let go of the desire or need to change anything or anyone or the wish for it to be different than what it is. Then we are able to focus on gratitude.
One of the outcomes of practicing samtosha or contentment is that the moments during which feelings of longing for something other than what is or those moments when coveting for one’s self what others seem to have occur less frequently. Naturally, from time to time such feelings do arise but through my ongoing practise of svadyaya or self-study (another niyama or personal practise), I am generally more able to identify when I am experiencing jealousy, greed or dissatisfaction or when I have succumbed to the temptation to look outside of my self or the moment in order to feel content or happy. With this self-awareness and understanding comes the opportunity to consciously choose how I will respond. I return to Patanjali’s sutras, and this one in particular, and recall his suggestion to simply be content with the “whatever”, thus living in joy regardless of what will next occur.
Yoga’s recent surge in popularity during the past decade is well timed for more and more people report feeling disillusioned, disconnected and discontented while also searching for balance and satisfaction in their lives. Although the more common physical benefits of yoga are experienced almost immediately, over time there are other subtle or not so subtle positive changes that occur. For example, in addition to observing when the previously mentioned base emotions of jealousy, greed and dissatisfaction arise, the tendency to react with greater acceptance for the way things are has developed. This change has been fueled by the belief that we are provided with exactly what we are meant to receive at any given moment and by maintaining a simple trust in the universe. These changes are also because of my committed practise of samtosha or contentment.
I believe that one of the most beneficial outcomes of sustaining a long-term yoga practise is the natural evolution of this practise of contentment, and the concurrent feelings of happiness and gratitude that are experienced. Simple phrases such as: “whatever”; “it is what it is”, and “it’s all good” have become more common in the popular lexicon and are spoken more frequently albeit at times in a seemingly flippant manner. But with the continual and ever evolving practise of cultivating samtosha or contentment, I have observed that these phrases have definitely become more entrenched in my speech and are spoken in a truly heartfelt manner. More importantly, through the practise of this niyama and the guidance of this sutra, I regularly experience samtosha and gratitude, and thankfully, happiness resides in my heart.
“Samtosad anuttanamah sukhalabhah” (chapter II, verse 41)
“From contentment unsurpassed happiness is obtained.”
The first instruction children hear when learning to cross the street is “Stop, look both ways and wait until the road is clear.” However, if children in India listened to this advice they would grow old waiting to cross! There is an order to the endless flow of traffic (cars, scooters, rickshaws, bikes, cows, buffaloes, goats and people) that ensures safety. Once one has started to cross, one must keep going and crossing on the diagonal seems to work best! Indeed, there is a balance underlying the chaos.
My time in India continues to be filled with several hours of yoga each day – in class, one learns and thinks while during practise, one studies and feels. The yoga process is about evolving consciousness and here in India, learning to mitigate the contrast between my inner world and the outer world is a part of the learning experience. The quietude of the mind, the stilling of consciousness and the intense inward focus one strives to maintain during practise enables one to penetrate deeply inward and block external distractions in spite of the ongoing honking, birds or voices that came be heard through the open windows of the pavilion. Thankfully, yoga has taught me how to access my center so that I am better able to merge my inner world with the outer one without losing my balance or stability regardless of the intensity of the situation at hand. My center is like the fulcrum of the teeter-totter.
Studying here at the source of yoga, and with the source of Iyengar yoga is a double blessing. While assisting in daily Medical classes, Mr. Iyengar has had his eye on the woman that I have been working with this month. He has been designing sequences for her and I have been actively involved in implementing these sequences including his prop setups and verbal instructions. During Medical class, poses are fully supported with multiple props and many of the therapeutic postures are restorative ones. Although there is a bustle in the Hall filled with dozens of patients and teachers, there is also a sacred quiet focus. Stepping out onto the street afterwards, one experiences an immediate sensory overload of the never-ending cacophony and constant motion. The 6 p.m. rush hour after Medical class is such a contrast to the inner sanctum of the Institute. And again, yoga’s lessons on how to remain calm and contained even in these contrasting moments of extreme intensity are applied and appreciated! Yoga, or Yug, means unity. Without the valuable lessons of yoga which include being able to experience unity of mind and body, walking down the main street at this hour would likely result in a very jarring effect on the nervous system. This balance is the baseline upon which I walk.
When the desperately needed monsoons arrived ten days ago, a driving relentless rain persisted for four days straight! My daughter and I were walking through a local market called Lakshmi Road when the rains came and we were caught in it, unprepared. Finding a store to purchase a rain slicker for her we stood four layers deep with people doing the same thing. Unable to find a rickshaw to take us home later that evening and laughingly trekking through what seemed like small lakes instead of streets, we were caught up in the energy of the monsoons. Lying awake that first night listening to the rains, walking around with wet clothes and wet feet (and with a broken umbrella to which I have since become very attached), and hearing words of gratitude spoken by many local people for the arrival of the monsoons fully awakened me to how very precious water is for the billion people of India. It also served as a strong reminder to appreciate our blessing of the abundance of fresh water available in Canada. With the arrival of the monsoons, I again noted extremes, and the balance to the inhospitable dry hot climate that had prevailed for so long.
Over the past several years, I have casually studied the science of Ayurveda medicine. My friend Sonali, a very accomplished Ayurvedic doctor in Pune, gives me treatments when I am visiting. Ayurveda has been practiced in India for at least 5, 000 years and is a form of alternative medicine – it is the oldest surviving whole body system of healing and health. Ayurveda seeks to prevent and treat illness by maintaining balance in the body, mind and consciousness using a comprehensive holisitic approach that emphasizes diet, lifestyle, yoga, meditation, massage and herbal remedies. Because of the importance of balance and promoting positive health, the universal principals and practices of Ayurveda holds great appeal for me. It is also the other side of the yoga coin.
A few years ago I had a very interesting conversation with a family member who did not agree that balance was attainable. However, it is my belief that by embracing the Eight-fold Path of yoga and by implementing Ayurvedic practices, the possibility of successfully creating a state of balance on a day-to-day basis is within reach. During the past few years, I have had to navigate difficult challenges including various hospitalizations of three different family members, and a very disturbing experience with a professional association. But by practicing yoga and utilizing Ayurvedic principles, I was better equipped to access inner strength and maintain my stability while managing these life hurdles. Studying yoga in India, while it nurtures my passion, solidifies my commitment, and deepens my understanding, it also enables me to restore and rejuvenate my mind body and spirit. In my ongoing quest for integration and balance, I continue to learn how to trust in the universe and experience the interwoven fabric of reality.
Temporarily pausing normal routines and responsibilities requires support and resources and spending time studying in a foreign country is a veritable treat to be savored. Learning the valuable lessons of how to merge our inner world with the outer one, identifying personal imbalances and symptoms in order to take care of one’s needs and promote positive health, and recognizing the underlying balance to everything, need not only occur when visiting a foreign land. Attempting to maintain one’s awareness of the yug, or unity of all things is an ongoing process regardless of where one is. But travel is an exercise in mindfulness training and provides a way of shifting perspectives with open eyes and an open heart. With new eyes that are wide open we are able to find or rekindle a balanced way of moving through our days and of observing the unity that exists everywhere.
When I return home I will no longer be wearing my travel lens but I will continue my efforts to maintain the perspectives that India has helped me to have. Undoubtedly many things will arise that will require balancing, including my own state of being. Starting the day with a very mindful sip of coffee and returning over and over again throughout the day to this kind of quiet and appreciative focus and presence – be it on my mat, in my creative pursuits, or in my interactions with others – will continue to be very important. Engaging in the simple practise of being mindful during my daily activities and practices combined with maintaining my intention to evolve consciousness and health will help me to create and experience unity and balance in everyday life – yoga, both on and off the mat.
“Pilgrim, pilgrimage, and road – it was but myself toward my Self,
and your arrival was but myself at my own door.”
Arriving back in India last week and stepping out of the airport at 3 a.m., the heat, smells, sights and sounds were strikingly familiar although it had been a few years since my last trip to the Iyengar Yoga Institute to study. As the taxi left the Mumbai airport for Pune, the necessary combination of the patience of a saint, a good sense of humor and just the right amount of assertiveness was soon required.
First stop, air for the tire. Second stop, pulled over by three policemen hoping to find a reason for baksheesh (a tip). The last stop en route was at a checkpoint where we were held for having “invalid papers” during which time at least eight men gathered around to discuss the situation. After a total of 27 hours of travel, I finally arrived in Pune, and unpacked in my rented apartment only to discover that the electricity is shut off all day on Thursdays. No ceiling fan but LOL, I was back!
India is a total experience. It is an assault on the senses, and is colorful, diverse, crowded and magnificent. It is a land of contrasts from the squalid to the luxurious. Colorful and fragrant flower offerings are for sale on every corner (instead of our Starbucks) and these are created daily to be offered to the plethora of deities that are worshiped and revered in India. In addition to the many gods and goddesses, intricate images and sculptures, sacred texts, the diversity of religious denominations and the ritual of puja, there are of course, the holy cows that roam the streets.
In a place where spirituality is infused in daily life, and where tradition underlies everything, I was immediately struck by how much has changed here yet how little has changed as well. The last time I had seen BKS Iyengar he was still in his eighties and now he is 94. Although his appearance has changed, he continues to practice a wide range of poses including advanced backbends and inversions. His postures are fully supported with props and he holds them for long durations. I feast my eyes upon him during the practise sessions and I am intrigued, inspired and humbled by this man, a veritable genius in our time.
Assisting in the Medical Class, I feel honored to be able to help facilitate healing in others and to also observe BKS Iyengar working the room as if at a party. He is like an athlete in the zone, flowing from one person to the next, fully present. One minute “The Lion of Pune” is barking a command or pressing with such force on someone and in the next moment, he is bending down to kiss a young girl all the while leaving his indelible mark as he touches with pure brilliance.
Herein lies the mystique and transformative power of yoga. BKS Iyengar has made yoga accessible to the world and while the practise is bound in tradition, it is also constantly evolving. As I observe him practicing or teaching, I glance up to look at the hundreds of photos that adorn the walls of the Institute and I am transported across the lifespan of his practise. Change is truly the constant.
There is more traffic in Pune and available rickshaws are harder to find. I used to visit the Internet café in order to stay connected with home. Now I have Wifi. The rickshaw driver pulls out his cell phone. Walking to the vegetable market to select my produce sill holds an allure but there is now a “supermarket” in the new Pune Central department store just minutes from the Institute. However, staying true to tradition, each day I still buy the un-pasteurized “cow milk” (to be differentiated from the available buffalo milk) and boil it for my morning coffee. This has been something that I have enjoyed doing during every trip I have made to study here. Boiling the milk and using a percolator on the stove takes time and slowing down is a part of the learning for me here. I don’t want to give up this simple ritual. The coffee also tastes better.
Within Sacred India, many changes have arisen including technology, the emerging middle class, and the more common style of western clothing. Yet there remains an incredible sensory experience. Constant noise and movement threaten to overwhelm the visitor but the bombardment is offset by choosing to focus on the surrounding beauty including the rich jeweled colors of the saris, the sweet smell of the jasmine, the deep chants of the religious, the lyrical songs of the birds, the intense flavors of the food.
It is a privilege to return to India to study yoga at the source. I am grateful that the universe has at this time supported this experience for I am once again blessed to learn from the living masters of our time. As I open myself to all that this incredible country offers and in particular, the rich teachings of the Iyengars, I simultaneously open to my yoga practise. And change is what permeates both my inner and outer worlds. And just like India, where tradition underlies the changes, the constancy or ritual of daily practise provides for the ongoing process of change for the yoga practitioner. As I embark on this new-old journey, I reflect on the many changes that have occurred during my thirty-year yoga history and ponder what new changes will undoubtedly unfold.
“I’m living in the moment, I’m living my life
Easy and breezy, with peace in my mind
Peace in my heart, with peace in my soul
Wherever I’m going, I’m already home”
Jason Mraz from his new album, “Love is a four letter word”
Having just passed the milestone thirty-year anniversary of my long engagement with yoga, many reflections arise pertaining to the swift passage of time and about the many invaluable gifts that yoga has given me through several life stages, including adolescence, pregnancy, motherhood and into middle age.
As my students share their passages with me, I am humbled by the responsibility to teach this powerful process in ways that are inspirational, authentic and personally meaningful. I feel especially blessed to share the timeless tradition of yoga with students of all ages ranging from four to eighty-five years! In a recent evening class, two teenagers, a twenty-something year old, and men and women in their thirties, forties and fifties were learning together. Regardless of age, gender, life stage, profession, physical capability or intellectual prowess, Iyengar yoga is truly available to all. For those who stay the course and practise with consistency, a wide range of benefits are experienced.
My dharma or path has included the incredible opportunity to share with thousands of others for over twenty-five years something that has been so important to me. The YogaBuds for Kids program is now in its seventeenth year; to help facilitate a child’s maturation process from early childhood to adulthood is a privilege. Helping to foster meaningful connections between parent and child teaching them yoga together has been another gift in my teaching career. Guiding a teenager towards developing greater self-acceptance; supporting a woman through pregnancy; helping a very stiff man to eventually touch his toes; rejoicing in someone’s first moments balancing in headstand, or sharing the pain of loss with an elderly student… Ultimately, the gift that I have been given is sharing the gift of yoga with others while developing meaningful relationships with them.
Having just celebrated Thanksgiving, I am reminded that it is how we use our blessings, not what we say about them that is the true measure of our thanksgiving. Thus, it is through my commitment to continue to “pay it forward” to my students – from all walks and of all ages – that I will express my thanksgiving.
Best of all is it to preserve everything in a pure, still heart, and let there be for every pulse a thanksgiving, and for every breath a song.
–Konrad von Gesn
One of the most popular and well-known rituals during the Jewish New Year involves dipping apple slices into honey. This sweet combination is symbolic of expressing the hope for a sweet year ahead. Round challah or egg bread is also eaten to symbolize the circle of life and the cycle of a new year. As the seasons change, and years flow one into the next, we are reminded that the only constant that we can always rely on is change itself.
It feels as if the transition from summer to fall is the most dramatic of the changing seasons when the temperatures and leaves drop and the light changes noticeably. The colours become more saturated, and everything prepares for sleep. One morning we awake to a new crispness in the air. In addition to environmental changes, there is also a shift in attitude and behavior. Back to school, back to the studio, new programs begin and schedules fill up. We shift gears and slide into the new normal.
Early in the classic Yoga Sutra, Patanjali defines yoga as “Control over the mind’s fluctuations comes from persevering practise and nonattachment” (1.14). The two guiding concepts, abhyasa (perservering practise) and vairagya (nonattachment) are key to yoga. Practise requires will and discipline, and nonattachment is a matter of surrender, release and letting go. Abhyasa becomes firmly established when it is cultivated without interruption and with devotion. We become grounded in the practise of always returning to practise without being bound to past patterns. Vairagya is a state of mind when desire is gone and over time, through practise, vairagya becomes possible.
This September marks my thirtieth year of yoga practise. It is not possible to briefly summarize all that I have learned or what these years of consistent devotion has provided me with. My persevering practise, or abhyasa, has carried me through several life stages. Yoga buttresses my life. Studying the wisdom from this timeless tradition, we learn to focus with attention and discernment while on the mat. Taking these lessons off the mat, we practise letting go and surrendering to each change, breath-by-breath, moment-to-moment.
As my mother takes my elbow for support when we walk together, our son, standing on the threshold of adulthood, at times, pushes back. Our daughter is now balancing with one foot in and one foot out as she prepares to depart for university in a few days. The other night, our youngest crawled into bed to cuddle and chat. Supporting loved ones in different ways, I try to be steadfast with devotion while remaining open to change and fully present. I experience serenity and stability and feel the fullness of the moment. As I practise complete awareness and attunement I also let go and embrace each change as it unfolds. A sense of peaceful spaciousness within is felt.
Whether alone on my mat or with loved ones, I practise gratitude for my many blessings. Cherishing feelings of connectedness and abundance, I am most thankful for my yoga practise. Tradition will ensure that apples and honey welcome in the new year. And as I greet each change and hold it in awareness, I taste and savor the sweetness of the present moment.