Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Tortoise and Yoga


Last Saturday, my yogacharya started another branch of our yogashala and he asked me to speak at the inauguration about my experiences as a yoga student.
I guess the expected thing on an occasion and a subject like this would be to talk about how yoga cured my chronic, debilitating backache. Or that my 20 year old migraine has disappeared or that my blood pressure, once a screaming 100/200 is now a low and sweet 80/120. But while it is true that I did come to yoga because I had a health issue, there were other more important things to talk about. Today, I share some of them with you today …..
Mysore is no stranger to yogacharyas and yogashalas and many would say that it is one of the cradles of yoga not just for India but also, as is evident from this gathering, for the entire world. So, when I decided to learn yoga, my choice of yogashalas was very wide indeed. And I chose Atma Vikas Yoga Vignana Mandira because I found and read on the Internet a talk that Yogacharya Venkatesh had given in which he said something that stood out. He said that yoga is a way life. I can’t tell you why, but somehow it struck a chord somewhere. I met Sir and started learning yoga. That was two and a half years ago. 750 classes later - give or take a few - I’m still here. And still learning. My friends and relatives are surprised. Still learning, they ask incredulously? I don’t blame them. We live in “instant” times. We’ve become used to wanting everything day before yesterday – or then at least in 10 easy classes. Almost every day we are flooded with ads about yoga courses promising to cure everything from asthma to depression in just 21 days. There’s apparently even 5 minute yoga that you can do while tying your tie or brushing your teeth or waiting for your flight to take off.
So, if it’s instant fixes that you are looking for, it’s not a good idea to go to our yogacharya. His guiding principle is a few seconds, a few centimeters a day. He’ll routinely tell you as he teaches you the simplest asana that it’s going to take you 6 months to get this. At least. (He will also tell you that the simplest asanas are the most difficult….) And anyway, what’s the hurry, he asks, when you have not only this lifetime but so many more in which to learn. Ask him if you’re doing the asanas correctly and he’ll say don’t ever ask me that because there is no such thing as doing an asana “correctly”. If anybody could, they’d be God. Ask him about pain, that favorite subject of us yoga students. Tell him that this or the other part hurts and most likely he’ll first laugh indulgently, then tell you very sweetly that it’s going to hurt for a while. (6 months, maybe?!!). Besides, a little pain is good, he’ll say, because learning to endure pain helps you build a strong will. (I remember when he taught me Upavishta Kona Asana. I was splat and spread out on the floor like a swatted mosquito and he asked, “What hurts?” My inner thighs, I said and boy, were they hurting.. Good, he said, and walked off…. ) Go to any one of his yoga demonstrations and his constant litany will be, “This asana is a very difficult one and with regular practice you will need at least 6 six years to master it…”
But I am still at it and God willing, I will be at for the rest of my life.
Why? Especially since it’s been like erasing a book that you’ve been writing for the last thirty odd years and then learning to write all over again? Because, the lessons are about life and you realize that not only is yoga a way of life, but also that there is no other way to live.
And what are these lessons?
First, that after a while, what asana you are doing becomes irrelevant. Sure, certain asana are more important if you have a bad back and others should be avoided if you are hypertensive and so on and so forth. And of course, the body parts that you use for Badha Kona Asana are completely different to Dhanurasana and so are many of the physical benefits. But, other than that, everything else that you use are exactly the same, no matter what the asana. Nothing to do with your body and they are also the very same things that you use outside the yogashala – in life.
For example - patience. When you start doing yoga, there’s the initial “honeymoon” period when you’re all fired up with enthusiasm. The yoga mat is lovely and new, you’re suddenly sleeping better, eating better, there’s a new spring in your step and everything seems wonderful, really. That euphoria lasts as much as a modern day Hollywood marriage - anywhere from 1 to about 4 months. Then you hit the speed breakers. You feel you’ve been struggling for weeks but not getting anywhere. Even the health problem that you came to solve is less, but still there. The yogacharya will talk about “focusing on your breath” and relaxing into each asana. But that’s all double Dutch because you’re too busy straining and pushing and “relaxed” is the last thing that you’re feeling.
And this is the point where you make a choice. Either to quit, telling yourself that this is really not your “thing” and maybe you should try some other yogashala or switch to meditation or tai chi or maybe even knitting ….
Or then, something called patience bit kicks in and you choose to wait. And just turn up at the class everyday, without thinking how long it will take to learn this or that asana or whether you’ll be yoga competition material in a year or why your neighbour on the mat is progressing faster than you etc., etc. And stop fighting with your asanas and yourself. Instead, you just do the best you can for that day. And, most important of all, be content with what you achieved in that session. And wait.
And the big deal about patience is that not can it stave off an ulcer or a heart attack, it is also the flip side of contentment. Om shanthi.
For me, that is more difficult than the most complicated asana. It’s easy to fight, to compete, to want to win, to want more and more – we’re taught this all our lives. As that Pepsi ad said – yeh dil mangey more….
Then, I am learning the real meaning of the word “effort”. For most of us, effort means pushing, straining and sweating. And we do this not just to have thinner thighs and yoga butts but also for flatter TV screens, fatter pay packets, lower cholesterol, more percentage points on our children’s mark sheets, more posh in our addresses, more happiness. We shove and push and strain to try and get into the fastest moving lane or queque only to discover to our horror that there is another one that’s moving even faster.
But I have come to a teacher who believes in …..yup, just a few seconds, a few centimeters further a day. Remember that story about the tortoise and the hare? I think the tortoise in that story must have been my yogacharya’s student. Because, when the tortoise stood with the hare at the starting point, the finishing line must have seemed at least a few lifetimes away. (I’ve often felt like that while doing an asana!) But he just shut his eyes, ignored the taunting chatter inside his head – (“Look, everyone around you has learnt padmasana and you can’t even manage Ardha of it!”) - and slowly tottered down those first few millimeters. And ignoring the equally taunting hare, who, was halfway down the racetrack and resting. Then he went a few more millimeters. Paused for a few breaths, nice and easy. And then, a few more. Till….
We all know how that story ends. But, that’s not important. Because the tortoise didn’t know that he was going to win. In fact, when he started, winning must have seemed as possible as growing a pair of wings and flying off to Florida. But, all the same, he gave it a shot and didn’t give up. Tackling it a millimeter at a time…
So, you could say that I am learning to be a tortoise.
And like the tortoise, I am learning that there’s very little that is not possible if you put your mind to it. We preset our limits, mostly without knowing if they are really our limits and so much of life gets blocked out before we have even tried it. A year ago, if somebody told me that I could do Sarvangasana, I’d have laughed. Today I can. It took me 2 years of almost daily practice to be able to do padmasana. An imperfect, barely padmasana, but a padmasana all the same. Two of my neighbours-on-the-yoga-mat can do pindasana in sarvangasana. In case you don’t know what that is, first you do sarvangasa and then, while still upside down, you wrap your legs into a padmasana and like a well-oiled hinge, fold your body from your hips towards your head so that your folded legs rest on your forehead. According to BKS Iyengar, in his “Light of Yoga”, difficulty rating of 5. According to me, at least 455. In my pre-tortoise days, I’d have thought – I will never ever be able to do that. Today, I think - maybe, someday…..
So I am learning to allow the possibility of the impossible. It’s both frightening and fun.

I also learnt the folly and arrogance of taking anything for granted. Just because my back when beautifully flat and stretched out in paschimottasana today does not mean it will so be tomorrow. Ditto outside the yogashala. So, I’m learning to what I’ve heard my yogacharya droning everyday to us while we are in shavasana – to be not in the past, not the future, but now. In this breath, in this moment, this is where all it all is. Concentration. Contentment. Or, as that Hindi film song says – kal kya hoga, kis ko pata. Abhi zindagi ka le lo mazaa.

Finally, I learnt that life is about small triumphs. No big leaps, no saving the world or the Amazon rainforest. Just conquering one more centimeter, a few more seconds. Like my anger fuse – it’s a little longer. Not much, just a few centimeters. Will there come a day when it will be as long as Lord Hanuman’s tail was in Ravana’s palace – endless and nothing will set me alight? Who knows? Maybe. (And if not in this lifetime, then maybe the next!)
Or then, maybe not.
These are lessons for life, about life. To be like the tortoise. And nothing teaches them better than yoga…..