Tag Archives: Ashtanga

The thing about time is…

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I’ve realized the thing about time is that it always makes you eventually forget the true extent of your pain, so that when a *new* pain makes its appearance, you’re tricked into believing that “NO, this is worse then before”.

I could be talking about a major disappointment. Or about another hypothetical situation of a jilted lover. But it is (of course) my practice that I am referring to. The thing that I wake up at 5 in the morning and drive in the quiet, still driveways of Federal Highway at 6. Often wondering where all these other crazy early risers who are on the road with me are going to at such an ungodly hour. 

I had been dealing with a discomfort on my right ribcage that has been escalating into a full blown type of pain that I find myself clutching and rubbing my right torso every time I need to laugh because well you *feel* it. Earlier this week, I had to use the opposite hand to push open my car door. And yet, there is a part of me, stubborn or resilient, call it what you may (or maybe just plain stupid, that’s quite possible too) that saw me turning up at the shala, on my mat until Wednesday. 

On Monday, I stopped at the end of Primary series. Did my usual backbending routine from the floor, involuntarily grunting a little too loudly perhaps, and stood up waiting to be dropped back. Ganesh, who obviously sees everything in that room, with eyes possibly at the back of his head too, must have seen all that silent pained expression I have been pulling during practice.

He came up to me and said in his very matter-of-fact and slightly broken English, “why are you standing? No dropback with that pain. No need. You do from the floor enough” and motioned for me to just sit down already. 

I felt like a kid in primary school that just got reprimanded for misbehaving in class. In this case, for not having enough awareness/intelligence to know when to back down and modify my practice until the pain is resolved.

Facet dislocation, my jovial Chinese chiropractor told me. And that is pressing on the nerve running to my ribs. I know what the cause is (hello dropbacks!) yet I do not know what exactly I am doing wrong that has brought me here. 

On Tuesday, I attempted pasasana, the first posture of the Intermediate series. And again, this time from way across the room, he gestured with his hands and said “don’t need to do”

On Wednesday, while helping to assist after my own practice he asked “what happened?” And held his right ribs. I shrugged and answered with a question “opening maybe?” And mimicked an urdhva dhanurasana 

Truth is, I HAVE NO IDEA. I don’t know if this is the normal rite of passage that every person has to go through before they could drop back and come up gracefully, if this was my own pre-existing condition resulting from years of bad posture, if I am ok and will be ok, or if I would end up somewhat fucked if I continue on. 

I remembered thinking to myself, while going through a slightly uncomfortable posture and humorong myself “well, that shoulder injury was end of December last year. Ok what. On average then I injure myself once a year”

Of course injury is never OK. As Eddie Stern would say in one of his many interviews “There are 8 limbs of yoga and pain is not one of them”

My closest friends tell me it is unavoidable. Necessary almost. That every single practitioner in that room has a story to tell about their own experience with pain, injury and the ubiquitous backbending.

“You need to break first before you get to do it correctly” 

“I had the same too last year, and I took muscle relaxants and rested. Just don’t take too much or you might not end up feeling anything at all” to which was met with a wide eyed stare of disbelief from me.

“This is normal. I think pain in that area indicates an opening, so you can go deeper in your backbending” 

I would very much like to believe the latter. In fact lets just say I am hanging on to that belief, and that is about the only thing that is keeping me from freaking out by the fact that I literally have use my left hand to open and close my car door. 

I had been resting for 2 days. No practice. But teaching still continues. With acute awareness of what I can help to adjust and what postures I should probably leave alone. 

Laruga Glaser talks about the cycle of the practice that involves phases of building up and spiraling down. She’s been doing this for 18 years. I find a certain comfort in that. Even though it is entirely baseless (because heck, how do I even know if our bodies are built the same?) I remain with the faith that these phases of “spiraling down” is unavoidable, no matter how much awareness you bring onto the mat with you every morning . 

“you have to find a way to make ‘peace’ with the fear”

Yet I don’t remember feeling as scared and hopeless as I do now compared to last December. I had been reading and staring at anatomical deconstruction of the spine, nerves and ribs for the last 2 mornings, hoping for an answer to modifying my practice until I am healed, and a clear understanding of what I need to be doing correctly in the future. 

The thing with time is it makes you think that it moves forward linearly and that as you move forward into your practice, you are meant to know more about your own physiology and anatomy. You are meant to have that awareness. 

And yet, truth is, I do not know. 

Making Shapes

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Bending, moulding
Hands expertly guiding
Chiseling, manipulating

He steps back, admiring
Perhaps scrutinizing a little too much
Muscles on bones, joints too tight

Bones on skin, and joint to joint
Pulling, pushing, head cocked to one side
Intently observing

He does not create,
For what is, has been created
The vessel in its glorious perfection
Yet still in need of so much adjustments

The artist is as much the teacher
As the teacher is the artist that inspires
Neither inventing anything new
Only lighting up the road towards truth

Across the line

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It is week 2 in my 2.5 weeks of practice with Saraswathi at the end of this season. I had arrived on Friday, and managed to begin my practice with a strong led class with her 2 Sundays ago.
Today, I received my first Intermediate series postures from Saraswathi today. It was a quick blur of a practice today, perhaps remnants from the short moonday trip to Taj Mahal that I just got back from last night. With no dinner from the previous night, all I could think of by the time I reached Supta Padangustasana was “I am SO hungry right now”. Though practice was quick, I felt time moved slower than usual. I took extra breaths in between postures in my Downward Dog. I accidentally skipped one or two postures and had to pick up from where I should have continued from. It was an unusually challenging practice, not because the postures were painful or difficult, but because the energy level was precariously low as I battled moments where dark stars were swimming across my vision.
“Last year, what you do in Intermediate?”
I came down from my Urdhva Paschimottanasana and looked up to her from my mat. “None” I said, shaking my head with a small smile.
“Ok, today you try, Pasasana. After Setu, do Pasasana”
An immediate flashback to that fateful Mysore practice I had with DR in early February where he had questioned me on who my teacher might have been to have given those Intermediate postures when dropping back into Urdhva Dhanurasana still remained a complete mystery to me. I wondered a little how that situation would have turned out if I had answered his question with “Saraswathi”.
I nodded and proceeded to my final posture from the Primary series. My legs straightened just a little bit more in Setu, perhaps fuelled by the excitement of entering into Intermediate with direct blessing from Saraswathi herself. Pasasana came easy today, quelling the slight anxiety as I haven’t been practicing this posture in the weeks leading up to me arriving here. Just as I was getting ready to close of, she looked across the room and said “No, from Setu you jump through, Pasasana”
It must’ve appeared as a whisper when I said “I’ve done Pasasana” because she kept insisting “chatvari, jumpback”. She lead me up through Krounchasana after which I indicated an Urdhva Dharunasana and she nodded.
I have been practicing my drop back lately by hovering. I do it 3 times, first pressing on the sacrum and the other two, hovering as far back as my own bravery or fear (depending on how you see it) would allow me to. Today she stood a couple of students away, and said “go, just go. Go down”. And this is when I thought to myself “OK, shit just got real yo”
At some point in a drop back there is always the fear that kicks in when I am low enough. Perhaps sensing that I would not go back any further she placed one hand behind my back and I dropped back, a little too hard on my right wrist, but I did it nevertheless. And she brought me back up with one hand.
As I am typing this, I am still amazed at what that brief and ever so barely there touch of a single hand from her can give enough assurance that I won’t be breaking my neck or stumble forward uncontrollably. Sometimes that is all that is needed from a teacher, the moment when they give you enough space to explore the depths and borders of your own fears, pushes just enough to feel the boundaries, and supports you just barely to guide safely across the line.

“Fate will carry the willing man…”

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“Surrender” she said.

There’s a bolster lying vertically down my mat, and I’m standing at the top, feet apart. I had just come up from what seemed like a failed attempt of an unsupported drop back…because the floor seems so far away, and the breath just wants to leave me hanging midway.

“But it’s not the same as letting go. If you let go, there will be too much weight suddenly on your hands when you reach the floor. Just..surrender”, adding in the technicalities with a little smile.

I am beginning to marvel at this one simple word “surrender” that embodies within it an immense articulation of what it really means to allow life to play out on its own course. On the mat and equally off the mat. A word that is supercharged with a lot of energy and emotions that not many are willing to venture past beyond the point of contemplation. Because surrender is possibly the hardest thing one could attempt to do in the face of the unknown.

Fata viam invenient, Seneca once wrote. Fates will have its way. Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt, fate will carry the willing man and drag the unwilling. Reminding us all that there is a higher hand that is at play, or a discourse of life that has perhaps been written somewhere beyond our own ability to see and understand.

It is not even the end of the first month in this year, yet the word which I have made a point to work on more, delve into deeper, understand it further has been featured so many times since the start of the year – both in my own personal life and in the conversations I seem to hold with those around me.

Like that conversation I had with H a couple of weeks ago over lunch when she related her desire for a child and the emotions that arises as she goes through rounds of fertility treatment. I asked what it felt like every single time the process did not work, that time of the month that arrives to let you know yet again your effort, money and hope has yet to produce the kind of fruit you’ve been wanting. “Agony” she says. “Partly because of the effort you put into preparing your body to be at its healthiest, you plan your life and your schedule around this process and mostly because the doctors and those around you are confident that it will work this time around…and then it doesn’t”.

“This time, I’ll need to get things in order up here before I go in for the second round” referring to her second upcoming IVF treatment while pointing to her head. We spoke of expectations and keeping that in check, but mostly of surrendering to the process. And preparing the mind to accept the possibility that she will never be able to experience the sensations and emotions of an expecting mother.

But the word is steeped in so many different connotations. Letting go. Acceptance. And in a less positive light, complacence, or even worse having the ‘je ne sais quoi’ attitude to life. But these are just semantics I believe. There are inevitable situations and circumstances that we have to eventually acknowledge as being out of our control. As Gregory Maehle puts it “totally accept that you are a machine operated upon by God”. That our own bodies can betray the best of us for reasons unknown.

There is however, a distinct beauty that lies beyond that point of surrender. A beauty that presents itself in moments of silence unravelling a bigger picture that is so often overlooked because the desire to have things the way we want it to be, at the time we want it to happen, to have the final say to the outcome is far more persistent than the desire to see what may lie ahead and beyond the actual ‘wants’. Which reminds me of a beautiful verse from Al-Baqarah that reads “…and it may be that you dislike a thing while it is good for you, and it may be that you love a thing while it is evil for you, and Allah knows, while you do not know” (216:2). And perhaps that is the essence of surrender, giving in entirely to the unknown despite our best efforts and allowing fate to carry us through willingly.

“Fear in itself, will reel you in and spit you out, over and over again”

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I’m getting some worthwhile music education lately from all the time spent in my car stuck in traffic. This one is Blue October that seems to be gaining frequent airtime lately. Don’t mind the guy that is screaming into the sea. I think he’s just letting go some of his own fear while shooting for this video.

I have been dwelling on the idea of fear since I heard this song. Perpetuated by some conversations that transpired during and after my yoga classes this week. There is a woman that comes in the morning at a small studio in the quiet neighbourhood of Shah Alam. Amongst the many obvious emotions I see surfacing up is fear. And though this is quite common to observe as someone who leads the class, it is also one of the most valuable lessons there is to learn about the human mind and its instinctual abilities to react to the unknown.

Across the spectrum of human emotions, fear is one that I remember growing up with a lot – fear of doing something wrong, fear of not bringing back the good grades, fear of watching the eldest brother ‘pay’ for having the courage to thread around the edges of ‘something wrong’ and a fear, I clearly remembered as a child sitting at the top of a slide, and frozen in place because I was so afraid to slide down.

Lately I have realised, with the recent shoulder discomfort in my Ashtanga practice that fear is like the shadow which exist at the heels of pain. Where there is pain and discomfort, there is a level of fear attached to it. Similarly, beyond the physical pain, where there is emotional suffering, fear would present itself in one form or another. That same question that popped in my head during practice at Dynamics about 2 weeks ago, how far should I go into this posture? How far beyond the pain should I be looking at in order to finish my practice today? and that motherload question of “AM I EVEN MODIFYING THIS CORRECTLY?!” became a daily conversation I have with myself while on the mat since this whole little adventure into discomfort started.

Because everything is an adventure isn’t it? Even the most uncomfortable ones always bring you down a road of discovery; revealing more about the world and its infinite perspectives. Sometimes your role as the observer, the outsider who is not even feeling these range of emotions is enough to teach you a thing or two. I remembered a conversation with I, who had assisted me into a backbend one morning when he said “I could feel your fear coming into that backbend. It was really cool!” I can tell you it was NOT cool to be the one dropping back, never quite sure whether I will break my back on the way down or slam my head on the floor or both, but it made me realised how precious these moments of vulnerability are in forming our understanding of ourselves and those around us.

Usually having been in the same shoes before makes it all that easier to empathise. So each time I see some students hovering their toes on the floor on top of their head, surrounded by hesitation, and that inevitable fear of breaking their neck, I let them explore this dimension while I stand behind them for assurance. And even as this one fear is eventually conquered, there are plenty more that each of us will come across over and over again, whether it be within the series or off the mat. Even as we think we merge as ‘victorious’ having finally crossed over that valley of fear, there must be a constant abiding knowledge that there are many more similar valleys to be crossed. Because as long as there remain possibilities of pain, injury, or emotional suffering, there will always be more of these dimension for us to plunge into with the sole purpose of revealing more of our inner world to ourselves.

“When you meet the right one, you will know in your heart”

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I am finally coming around to working my way through that box of books I brought back from Mysore in November. There is a book about Shri K Pattabhi Jois and the personal accounts of his students and family members

It’s a new habit of mine lately to scan the table of contents first and to jump straight to the part which catches my interest first. Naturally, I zoomed in onto Saraswathi’s interview. I think Donahaye and Stern did an awesome job in keeping her answers in its most original form, edited only as much as is required, but still allowing her voice to come through. Because it certainly felt that way. Reading it was like listening to her talking at the Sanskrit College in October when she and Sharath were invited as honorary guests for their contribution towards spreading the light (and method) of yoga.

I remembered the first time I had ever seen her in person. In Brickfields when she was in Kuala Lumpur for her 2014 Asia tour. My journey with Ashtanga yoga then was new, and I wanted to find out what the hype was all about being able to practice with immediate family members of Shri K Pattabhi Jois. I remembered a room packed with people so early on into the morning, and the gentle rhythm of chanting from the temple nearby. When I saw her it wasn’t really anything special. She struck me as a regular woman. And though it may be anti-climactic in that sense, there was an energy that emanates from her and throughout that entire LED class. I didn’t know what it was or exactly which moment in that entire class that made me realise I wanted to spend an extended period of time practicing with her, but I knew that very night I will be headed to Mysore sometime in the year just so I could practice in her class again.

In an earlier account somewhere in this blog, I wrote about the first 2 weeks in Mysore being filled with a combination of confusion and disappointment. I loved being close to her but that persistent thought of “I learn more and progress more at home with other teachers then here” was the main theme at least for those first few days. Week 3 & 4 was when the magic took hold and I began to understand that learning and progress occurs in so many other ways that the traditional method of learning I grew up with.

My experience of her are fond and warm, very much like a warm embrace of coming home. Even when I barely knew anything about her personal life aside from the fact that she is the daughter of Pattabhi Jois and the mother of Sharath Jois. I remembered at the end of my first practice in KPJAYI when she stood next to me, leaning against the rows of pictures lined up on one side of the shala, and casually asking me where I had come from. “Malaysia”, I said and her face lit up and immediately peppered me with questions about Ganesh and his wife.

There is a firmness in her touch, yet a kindness that follows through closely behind that. The only adjustment I would ever get from her are the rare support in Utthita Padangusthasana, and at the end in Shirshasana. One morning she called me to stand next to C, who was also about to enter into her Utthita Padangusthasana and made us complete that posture next to each other while holding our legs steady with both of her hands. I wished someone had took a photo of that! C and I laughed about that all throughout breakfast admiring her skills at multitasking all these students in her shala.

If anyone ever catches her eyes, there is a kind of gentle humor that resides in the depths of her soul. It’s like a gentle crinkle of the eyes and a smile that is just there for no reason at all. A day before Diwali, she was in class adjusting as usual, singing to her favorite songs. By then I’ve developed the habit of occupying my thoughts and movements within the perimeters of my mat but the strange voice of a woman humming eventually made me realised it was her singing. It was only when she stood in front of me, I realised she had an earphone in one ear and walking around with an iPod too.

It was luck that my stay there somehow coincide with that event at the Sanskrit College because that night, while she was giving her speech, was the first time I realised her immense contribution not just within the circle of Ashtanga practicing community but beyond that as a woman. I don’t know if she ever realised this, but being the first female Sanskrit scholar (largely thanks to Pattabhi Jois’ insistence as well that women should receive equal education) and later the first and perhaps the only yoga teacher at the time to be teaching Ashtanga to a mixed group of men and women opened up space to reconstruct, expand or even reimagine the role of women within the Indian society. I believe, her exposure in the Western world helped reinforce her presence within the social fabrics of the traditional Mysorean family life. Reading her accounts of having neighbours and family members giving her grief for moving back to Mysore after having her 2 kids while her husband was away working with Tata Motors was heartbreaking nonetheless.

I have been blessed to be introduced to yoga through so many other wonderful beings. The journey that started if at all by chance all the way back in 2003, and the amazing souls I had met and learned from since then is responsible in its own way for allowing me to be where I am today. Those that we learn from, especially in isolation for long extended period of times (as in committed to one teacher at one time) undoubtedly leaves its mark within us. The way they speak, adjust, teach and sometimes think eventually and to a certain extent is reflected in the way that we speak and teach. And that I believe is the most beautiful outcome from a student-teacher relationship.

At the end of her interview for this book she said:

When your mind is strong you stay with one teacher (…) when you meet the right one, you will know in your heart

Before I left, some of the more common topics circulating around the breakfast table in Mysore was “would you come back to practice with Saraswathi or would you try Sharath?”. My answer was always the same, to practice with Saraswathi for as long as she is around. Because I know in the depths of my heart that I would miss no other teacher more than I do for her.

..and this is the wonder that is keeping the stars apart

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Time is rather fascinating, from hours, to months and years – one can’t help but wonder what life would be like without any concept of time? Without any regard of time there will be no such thing as New Years no? But the concept of time, amongst its many other function serves as a tool of reflection, consolidation and integration of experiences into something meaningful. Because man is always out to find and attach meaning to everything that happens to them, Viktor E. Frankl certainly got famous from it, and I am not far behind in agreement.

This year has been nothing short of magical. Cliche I know, but it is one word that I can use with all honesty and still feel that it falls short of encapsulating the essence of 2014. Since it is also the end of my twenties, that “defining decade”, it feels really good to be exactly where I am today, to look back on all the big life decisions I have made to bring me here, and to feel a sense of excitement entering into my thirties.

If there was a word I could use to sum up my entire year it would be blessings. I am infinitely blessed and for this I am endlessly grateful to the Universe and the Higher power that governs it. From the opportunities that came in a steady stream and watching Mind Body Breath grow from strength to strength (with the 2 coolest thing to happen to it was the appearance on TV3 Berita Utama and coverage in Her World magazine), the kindness of strangers, the meeting of beautiful souls and mind blowing connections that transcends all my understanding of what it means to really and truly connect with another person, and ultimately the expansion of a group of people I hold close and dear in my heart.

Delivering a report and having a Vietnamese translator by my side (and discovering that having your presentation translated actually gives you plenty of time to calm that public speaking nerves – woohoo!), appearing on their national news, embarking on this teaching thing full time, sharing my written thoughts with others and seeing on it print, sharing what I love and what I know to others and watching them experience similar benefits and positivity, that maiden trip to India, falling in love with Saraswathi and her energy, discovering the value of parampara, falling head over heels with the entire practice and discovering an entirely new world around it, kick starting a business partnership with a person who is so similar to me in values yet so utterly different in certain worldviews and looking forward to the kind of boundless beauty that will result from this communion.

There were a couple of lessons that became really clear to me which affirms some of my understanding of the world or whatever it was that I may have read from before. I understood the concept of making space by first releasing the things that doesn’t serve you anymore. Magic happens in those spaces. They really do 🙂 I understood every quality that which we love, admire, hate or detest in other people are merely the reflection of the exact same qualities within ourselves, shedding an entirely different light and meaning on my understanding of ‘one-ness’ and the self. And I have also come to understand that the Universe awards you with many, many gifts in different forms and that you would only have to be present and aware when it happens to fully appreciate it. Of the biggest lesson in this though, I have learned that sometimes this gifts are not meant to be kept, sometimes to be let go as immediately as they came, sometimes to not be owned but appreciated as they are, and on other times, to be experienced and then to allow distance from it and to admire it from afar. The challenge that remains for me at least is to learn not to grow attached to any of these wonderful gifts.

Equally as the affirmation occurs, so too did the disintegration of certain beliefs that was accompanied with a lot of questions that was really uncomfortable leading to days of unease and sleeps underlined with meaningless nightmares. I am still questioning a lot of things but I have managed to find comfort in this very uncomfortable process, to make peace with certain things that remains unknown and to embrace fully my ability to question the very foundation of my faith and trusting this entire process in and of itself. Certainly these questions arise from within for the mere purpose of drawing one closer to the self.

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
E.E Cummings