Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Thank you, B.K.S. Iyengar

December 14th 1918–August 20 2014

Mr. Iyengar died last week, aged 95. Can you imagine being born in 1918? And continuing to live zestily, generously, big-heartedly into a whole new century? He published his book, Light on Life, some ten years ago. I think of it as a manual for humans wishing to live well, and Mr. Iyengar closes the book stating, "I pray that my ending can be your beginning." What a thing to say, and with such lightness.

Much has been written about Mr Iyengar's life, and rightly so—this man was, and is, a true pioneer. He brought yoga to the west, literally, when he first visited London as a steely-eyed young man in the 1940s. His seriousness was part of his determination to be taken seriously, for yoga to be taken seriously—at a time when he was forbidden from showing his face in the dining room of the posh hotel he was staying in, on account of his being Indian. Half a century later, you can look at the photos of Guruji, laughing away; in a fine Radio 4 documentary recorded around his 80th birthday, he says, "I feel that my method of yoga can never die and that is why I am happy." He recognized his essential part in bringing yoga to the world and it delighted him. Of course, his levity and joy bubbled forth as a result of his ability, founded on tenacity, to live in freedom.

One of the things I've loved most about Mr. Iyengar's teachings, over the years, is his emphasis on living yogically as a "householder". In other words, not a practitioner who secludes themselves in the woods or a cave or a monastery to pursue yoga. Rather, someone living what we'd consider a more regular life; working a job, raising a family, these things. He treats this way of living—the way he lived, in fact—with utmost respect. He offers teachings on how to live in this world with devotion. It moves me that he did this; that he strove to help people in this way. It rings through in this teaching from Light on Life:

“As animals, we walk the earth. As bearers of divine essence, we are among the stars. As human beings, we are caught in the middle, seeking to reconcile the paradox of how to make our way upon earth while striving for something more permanent and more profound.”

Every inch of his teachings—physical and metaphysical—explores and seeks to clarify this wonderful, impossible, perfect situation. He helps us navigate, directs us in the dance that takes place as we negotiate these two seeming poles, as we move towards yoga, union.

He's there grounding down our back foot in Parsvokonasana as our top arm reaches up to the sky. His meticulous instructions directing us on how best to open the chest, waist, side-body to make space in the pose. He's there, encouraging us on how to bring our finest awareness to our asana practice, asking that we watch our discomfort in poses in our journey towards sthira, sukha—strength and sweetness. Or at least, I feel this to be so.

I was considering our human situation—our hooves on the ground, our consciousness ascending to the stars—with regard to longing. That particular heart-song that our condition seems to inspire. My friend suggested that this longing is also what helps us grow; it keeps us reaching, exploring and learning. Good to have a teacher there with you.

There is so much gold in Light on Life. Another friend of mine has read the book many times, underlining sections in a different color on each reading; the pages are almost entirely underlined now. When I heard the news of Mr. Iyengar leaving his body after this great gift of a life, I thought immediately of one particular part of the book, which you can read in the photograph below.

Here's to courage; to commitment, clarity and compassion.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Who knows?

On Monday I left my phone at home. When I realized this on the subway into work, I felt like a rogue—so off-the-grid. I liked that I couldn't check my phone for messages, or the time—or to check the time as an excuse to check for messages. I felt freedom as a result of not being constantly available at every moment, and also through not seeking approval or affirmation from outside.

I thought about the way we compare ourselves to others, on social media, and something a smart friend of mine once said, regarding this: You're comparing your bloopers and outtakes to someone else's showreel. It's not real or reliable.

That day, Robin Williams died. Besides sadness, there was also a general sense of shock at his passing and specifically his unhappiness—a feeling of, Who knew? To which I thought, he knew.

It's only you who lives with your heart. It's only you who negotiates between the heart and the mind. We can have immensely supportive, loving relationships with our families, partners and friends. But you are the only one who lives with you.

This, to me, is what is so valuable and precious about the practice of yoga and meditation. The watching and listening. We get to see time and again the movements of the brain and the body, our inclinations and habits, and the decisions we make. We may start to see patterns, and maybe even find a little space to make an evaluation in free, clear space. Or at least get a moment's peace. We sit with our heart and we listen.

We strive to make healthy decisions. By healthy, I mean healthy for your body and your heart: Eat well, love well, rest well. Choose well. Looking after your own health contributes to others' wellbeing. Living peacefully with yourself results in your moving in the world with more peace, spaciousness and compassion for others.

Thinking about this made me feel closer to the prayer, "Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu". May all beings be happy and free, and may my actions in some way contribute to that; may my happiness and freedom radiate outwards to touch others.

It can be difficult to disentangle yourself from checking your phone, checking others' imagined opinions of oneself, asking for others to listen to your heart with some kind of divine stethoscope. But you're there right now. You are with your heart and at any moment can choose to quiet down and listen.

लोकाः समस्ताः सुखिनोभवंतु

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The view from the moon

I saw a lady eating a cucumber like it was a banana on the subway platform. I thought, interesting. Why not?

It made me think of an old art teacher I had at school. When we were out on lunchbreak, he'd turn our paintings upside down. We'd return to the studio and boom! a new perspective on the painting, its composition, what was really going on.

And that made me think of inversions in our asana practice; going upside-down to get a new view.

Yoga is about awakening; to the truth of the present moment. The banana-cucumber, the painting reframe, the handstand are all good ways to do this. When you are awake, you have a bit more spaciousness in the mind. A little bit more room to consider and experience what's really important today, beyond the mind's chatter.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes about this shift in perspective in his beautiful book, Fear. This extract is from the section Appreciating Where We Are.

'Imagine two astronauts go to the moon, and while they're there, there's an accident and their ship can't take them back to Earth. They have only enough oxygen for two days. There is no hope of someone coming from Earth in time to rescue them. They only have two days to live.

If you were to ask them at that moment, "What is your deepest wish?" they would answer, "To be back home walking on our beautiful planet Earth." That would be enough for them; they wouldn't want anything else. They wouldn't think of being the head of a large corporation, a famous celebrity, or the president of the United States. They wouldn't want anything but to be back here—walking on Earth, enjoying every step, listening to the sounds of nature, or holding the hand of their beloved while contemplating the moon at night.

We should live every day like people who have just been rescued from dying on the moon. We are on Earth now, and we need to enjoy walking on this precious, beautiful planet. Zen Master Linji said, "The miracle is not to walk on water or fire. The miracle is to walk on the earth."

I cherish that teaching. I enjoy just walking, even in busy places like airports and railway stations. Walking like that, with each step caressing our Mother Earth, we can inspire other people to do the same. We can enjoy every minute of our lives.'


I was happy to see that in the settling time before class started, a number of students had already got the props they needed and put themselves into the positions that really called to them—one student was lying in suptabadakonasana with a bolster, while another had blocks under his knees in sukhasana.

I was happy about this because I've been thinking about this idea of prajna lately. Or rather, specifically since I took class with Tara Glazier at Abhaya Yoga and she wove this concept into the class in terms of what she taught—the movement and the ideas—and the way she taught it, ie the energetics.

Prajna exists in Hinduism and in Buddhism, and it means insight; prajna is characterized as light illuminating the truth, and also as a sharp sword cutting and paring back to truth. At its most profound level this means the realization of ultimate reality, and the awakening of prajna—through curiosity, open-mindedness, presence and so on—can happen at every level of day-to-day existence. In her excellent article on Prajna, Judy Lief writes, "Our inquisitive interest encompasses all levels, from the most mundane, such as how do I turn on this computer, up to such profound levels as, what is the nature of reality?"

If you've been to a yoga class, you've probably heard the teacher tell you to listen to your body—an instruction which can feel like a bit of a cliche or a cop-out. But the way Tara taught it was different. She's a very experienced teacher who can give a whole bunch of helpful physical cues for finding the optimal alignment in a pose. But, as she said, ultimately your body simply won't let you injure yourself. Your body is intelligent, and if you really listen to what's going on and respond with physical and energetic curiosity, you can make your way towards that alignment yourself—and crucially, back off what doesn't feel right. Listen to your body and be honest with yourself.

One subtle effect of true listening and dialogue with my own body was that I found myself able to move into an advanced asana I'd have normally thought beyond my capability (though curiously I did dream I went into Vrschikasana scorpion pose a couple of nights before Tara assisted me into a tentative iteration of it). It's as if your body trusts you when it knows you're really paying attention.

Equally, taking restorative poses when you wake up feeling tired lets your body know it's okay, you're not going to force anything today; which allows for tension to dissipate in the mind as well.

So yes, I was happy to see the students with their props, responding to what they needed. We kept things super-simple in class and moved with care and generosity; making space and allowing for prajna practice on and off the mat.