Samputa, in the exquisite gestural language of Bharatanatyam, is one of the double hand gestures. The right and left hands are cupped together to create a container. A little treasure box.
I find the image apt for many of the traditional Sanskrit names given to the poses in Yogāsana. For example, Vīrabhadrāsanaencodes the whole story of the death of Lord Śiva’s beloved wife Satī. Overcome with grief and rage, Śiva rips out one of His dreadlocks, throws it to the ground, and the fearsome Vīrabhadra arises, ready to avenge Satī’s death.
Investigation into the stories behind the names of the poses can take our practice of yogāsana to another level. Taking Vīrabhadrāsana – literally “Blessed Hero” – again as an example, how might this familiar pose transform if we allow ourselves to embody the dharmic or righteous rage of this avenger? What does it mean to take dharmic action in the world?
The sadhana of yogāsana is a treasure box freely bequeathed to us from the rich culture of India, its birthplace. Do we have the courage to open it up and investigate what lies within?
On this day, the 72nd celebration of the Republic of India, I offer my heartfelt thanks to the land of Bharat for the priceless treasure of yogāsana!
My main sadhana, for many years, has been yogāsana. I practice, like most hatha yoga practitioners, on a yoga mat. About 68 by 24 inches. A container. A sacred space. A safe space.
But today, I rolled it up, and stood in the middle of the floor in my practice space. I was starting class #14 with my Bharatanatyam teacher, Supratim Talukder, via Zoom. Today’s class focused on improvisatory movement prompted by various types of cues: situational, musical, emotional… Once I allowed myself to surrender to the process, it felt incredibly liberating. 75 minutes spun by. And afterwards – I felt like I had let go of a lot of stuff. You know – all the individual and collective angst related to this pandemic and life in general. I just – danced it out! It felt so cleansing – like I had just breathed in a truckload of fresh air. Without a mask.
I followed my class up by getting back on my mat and doing some asana. It felt – quite different. There was more space in my body. Familiar poses felt new.
I’ve been working on some improvisatory movement around the theme of the lotus with my Bharatanatyam teacher, Supratim Talukder. I’m realizing that this is not easy work. I keep falling into movement that is over-articulated, or cliché, or just not connecting… My teacher, while kindly encouraging, is also uncompromising. You need to find your inner movement, I’m advised. Find your inner lotus. But –
This morning, as I sat for my prānāyāma practice, I let my awareness settle on grounding – on the muladhara. The muck that we are all rooted in. Tentative rootlets insinuating, exploring down.
Then, gradually moving up to that liquid space of generative creativity. Of water. From the root, finding the gentle caress of flow.
And all the climbing energy centres echoing this watery origin of movement, of sway. Svadhisthana.
My new fascination with Bharatanatyam dance is flowering out in multiple directions. My recent browsing history: Tagore, Ramakrishna, Uday Shankar, asamyukta hasta mudras…
The centrifugal force of a new passion!
My challenge is to keep grounded and not jump ahead of myself. But it truly is exciting to discover new territory, to shift out of set patterns… I can feel shifts in my practice of yogāsana. I feel stronger as new muscle memory is being created.
It really is positively exhilarating that at 61, the potential for growth, for evolution, and revolution is still there! It’s always there.
I have been studying some verses from the Taittiriya Upanishad with my teacher, Marcia Solomon. Each week we chant a few lines, call response, to verify pronunciation, and then look at the meaning. I was struck when we came to I.17 at the repetition of svādhyāyapravacane ca: it is repeated no less than 13 times!
This must be important.
Svādhyāyatranslates as “self-study” and might be interpreted as “independent study” or “a study of the self” – or both. Pravacane is “instructing / teaching”. (Ca = “and”)
In my retirement from the profession of teaching in the secondary school system I find myself with time to pursue independent study of topics related to the path of yoga: āsana, Sanskrit, vedic chanting, anatomy… and I have noted a tendency to become quite involved in these pursuits, to the point that I find myself sometimes in danger of forgetting to share the fruits of my investigations with others.
Teaching is the perfect complement to independent study. Teaching is not just an option – it is a responsibility. Teaching connects us with the world. We all play the roles of both student and teacher as the context in which we find ourselves shifts.
The sacred connection fostered in the exchange between teacher and student is what allows us to evolve and connect with our higher nature.
When I heard the guard shout out those words to the ladies in the dorm at the Ottawa Regional Detention Centre a few weeks ago, it took me a minute to realize that I was the “yoga chick” and the small programs room where I was waiting was “the box”. In a few minutes, “the box” came alive with that night’s participants for 45 minutes of yoga and meditation.
I am one of several volunteers with Freeing the Human Spirit, a volunteer-based organization (currently under the aegis of the John Howard Society) started by Sister Elaine MacInnes . This impressive woman is both a Catholic nun and a Zen Roshi. Over the years, she has inspired many volunteers to bring the teachings of yoga and meditation inside prison walls.
Last night was damp and cold: a typical November evening in my part of the world. Before driving out to the OCDC I was thinking that it might be nicer just to cocoon for the evening with a hot drink and a book. But it was “my night” so on I went.
There was one woman who came to take part in the program. This allowed for a more personal exchange as we practiced some simple asana and sat quietly in meditation together. Small details about her life emerged during our time together “in the box”- her complex family life growing up – a 3 1/2 year old son who was obviously the light of her life…
It broke open my heart and I could see, for a moment, that she and I were (to borrow a phrase from Sister Elaine) “light sitting in light”.
The letters of the Devanagari swim cryptically in front of me on the page. With no transliteration in sight! Nothing to do but to jump in and, painfully slowly,
– sound – it – out –
I had no idea, when I signed on to study Sanskrit with my teacher, that it would be this hard! Hey, I thought, I have a second language already. I get this language acquisition thing! I guess I was forgetting that my second language (French) was acquired when I was a lot younger than my now 57 years.
When I expressed just what a monumental effort sight-reading that sutra was to my teacher, she had one word for me:
I have decided that this venture is exceptionally good for me. It takes me way out of my comfort zone. It makes me sweat (considerably). It brings me back to the experience of being a rank beginner. I have developed a new appreciation for the students who come to my āsana classes never having taken a yoga class before…
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to conjugating some 4th class verbs in the present tense…
My main yoga practice container is in the Ashtanga Vinyasa lineage – more specifically, Ashtanga as interpreted by Richard Freeman of the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado. Ashtanga is the practice elaborated by Sri Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, India. It is an elegantly designed, fixed-sequence practice. This, like most else in Life, the Universe, and Everything, can be both a blessing and a curse.
My teacher, Marcia Solomon, has worked extensively with Richard Freeman in this tradition. She once pointed out the two sides of the coin to us: on the one hand, knowing exactly what comes next in the practice sequence allows the practitioner to take his/her awareness deeper in the asana progression; on the other hand, the practitioner can become somewhat dogmatic in a overly strict adherence to the sequence.
I have been teaching an Ashtanga-themed class for several years… but recently I added an additional class to my teaching roster: Chakra Yoga as developed by Anodea Judith, American author, therapist, and public speaker on the chakra system. Quite a different practice container from Ashtanga! But having the opportunity to experience a traditional, lineage-based practice and a creatively sequenced exploration of the themes in each of the chakras has been fruitful.
My challenge now is to continue to delve into the ways these diverse practices feed into and enrich each other.