Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Letter 2015

Last year I spent Christmas in Korea, and this year in India. I hardly remember what Christmas is “supposed” to be like. Neither country goes all out like the USA’s consumer frenzy. In the absence of shopping, and in India, without a church service to attend, Christmas serves primarily as a marker of time, an occasion of remembrance and reflection. Accompanied by the solstice, the early sunsets, and cooling temperatures, even in tropical India, it’s also an inwardly turned time. What were this year’s lessons?

A year ago I was preparing to return to Detroit life. I moved into the Boggs Center to join Grace Lee Boggs’s caregiving team. So much of this year has been shaped by her, reflected upon in other posts. I continue to be held in her thrall, and grateful for every moment.

It was also a year of missing BKS Iyengar, who passed away right before I left for Korea, on my daughter Meiko’s 28th birthday, August 20, 2014.

When such immense souls such as Grace’s and Guruji’s pass on, it takes a while for the universe to reorganize itself around the vacancies left in their wake. The Boggs Center had been tending to immediate needs since Grace’s passing in October, and more recently, taking up longer-term plans. The Iyengar family and Institute in Pune has taken on a whole new shape.

It takes time for our own souls to rearrange themselves around our losses. There’s a spot in the practice hall at the Institute that reminds me of Guruji everytime I step through it. I have so many images in my heart and mind of him, practicing and teaching, ever vigilant, generous, all-seeing. The other day, I visited the library where Guruji worked every afternoon. It's still imbued with his every touch.

All Fall, I felt Grace as soon as I unlocked the front door of our house. It took several seconds to remember, oh right, followed by a pause to grieve, and feel the loss.

I received word a few days ago that an uncle in Korea, my mother’s sister’s husband, completed his battle with cancer, and passed away. It will be some months and years for my cousins and my aunt to process this deep loss. In fact, grieving never really ends. I feel vaguely comforted by this realization. It takes the pressure off. We don’t need to “feel better” or “get over it.” Instead, we need to absorb the new reality, and incorporate it into our daily being. At best, loss informs us, makes us wiser, and brings us into deeper contact with the spiritual world. Grieving deeply opens up the wells of emotional intelligence, empathy, compassion, and ability to love and celebrate.

A friend once told me, after my mom died, two years after my dad, that I seemed larger. That in fact, everyone she knew who lost parents, seemed to grow on an energy level. I certainly see this in the Iyengar family. All the members of the family, but particularly Geetaji and Prashantji, have expanded immensely in stature and significance, and continually channel Guruji’s teachings.

Although Grace didn’t have biological children, she served as mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother to generations, and her impact will be felt for decades to come.

As different as they are, there was a moment of conjunction between these significant teachers. Last summer when Guruji passed away, Grace was at an all-time low point. She had suffered a fall, was in pain, and didn’t know how and if she could go on. I told her the story of BKS Iyengar, and his passing, and she recognized a soulmate in the stories, and found inspiration. The spiritual plane must be wondrous indeed to include all these loved ones.

Weeks after Grace’s death, I decided I would give away mydecades-old library of books. Then I decided just recently that I would give up shaving my head. Shortly after that, I gave up my tooth, and along with that, my dogmatic attachment to how healing should look. What more will I give up? Time will tell.

“The product of yoga should be wisdom,” coached Prashantji this morning, as he riffed on process and product and reasons to practice.

Oh, and getting back to Christmas. Back in 2012 I committed to learning how to improvise on the piano. In 2015, a friend from Milwaukee gifted me an electric keyboard. And my rental house in Pune has an electronic piano! So here is my gift to you, dear friends. Merry Christmas, after all. This was a favorite carol of Grace’s, Joy to this broken, brutal, but beautiful world.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Profoundly Solstice

(TRIGGER ALERT: Description of oral surgery including photo!)

Winter Solstice 2015 proved to be a day of reckoning, transformation, surrender, ego-annihilation, and trust.

It began with a toothache. The decayed molar I had been keeping at bay, pain-free, for 6 months, through cod liver oil, high vitamin ghee, raw milk, and bone broth, took a turn for the worse. Here in India, besieged with air pollution, asthma flareups, having run out of probiotics, and away from my usual regimen and supplies, the poor tooth caved.

I chewed on cloves, megadosed on turmeric and vitamin C, but alas. Action needed to be taken. In yet another Arjuna moment, I had to face a decision. I walked to my neighborhood dentist and requested an extraction.

“Good news, madam, we can save your tooth,” declared the kind woman dentist.

Bullshit. I had been reading up on root canals and decided I was not a good candidate for one. They inevitably harbor bacteria, and anyone facing trauma in an autoimmune condition is at risk for the spreading of bacteria systemically. Basically it’s keeping a dead object in your mouth for primarily cosmetic reasons. Keeping teeth does stabilize the bone, but there are other ways of doing this. After doing my due diligence I decided the safest, least interventive route for me was an extraction and a partial.

Partial what? A denture. A fake tooth. You know, like your grandma’s.

It only took a few minutes for me to get over the shock to my ego. Soon, I started embracing the idea, just like I embrace my graying head of hair, bald spot or not. I’m eager to spread the gospel of partials as a healthy, inexpensive alternative to harmful oral surgery.
(Don't look at this picture if you're easily grossed out. But, if like me, you're fascinated by body parts, even decayed, enjoy.)

500 rupees ($8) and half an hour later, the deed was done, the dead tooth in a little baggy. I won’t tiptoe around the violence of an extraction. It takes brute force to yank a deep-rooted molar out, decayed or not. My kindly dentist yanked and twisted with all her strength, resting between attempts and shaking her arm out, as her assistant held my head tightly so it wouldn’t move. I surrendered to the forces, sat in Svastikasana, palms folded under the vinyl bib. The head hold felt surprisingly comforting as she squeezed my temples against the extreme wrenching from the dentist.

Walking home with the bloody cotton wad in my mouth, I reflected on the role of teeth. They say teeth, as the hardest substance in our bodies, represent the last vestige of our past life. They carry a ton of karma. Solstice in Pune occurred around 10:30am, the exact time of the extraction. So this was a huge letting go, as the planet shifted into the longest night, a renunciation, a relinquishing, of the old stories, the intergenerational trauma, that I can’t help but carry.

As soon as I got home, I went to our altar. I rinsed off the rotted tooth that had served me so well and placed it on the altar. I lit candles, and rang bells and bowls for energy clearing. I did a eurythmy Halleluiah in four directions, clearing all obstacles that prevent me from seeing the highest. I thought about burying my tooth in the garden, but a roommate had just come home and it wasn’t the right time to explain what was happening, so I put the tooth back into its little ziplock.

After a soft food lunch and nap, I took yet another step toward ego-annihilation and went to a nearby medical clinic to get a prescription for a steroid inhaler. Over the past week, the asthma had gotten worse, I had succumbed to use of the rescue inhaler that a student had insisted on giving me out of concern, and just as anticipated, the rescue inhaler had become less and less effective. As Prashantji points out, you can’t be pragmatic if you’re being dogmatic.

I was missing Geeta Iyengar’s lecture on the Bhagavad-Gita that day, but friends shared with me later the highlights of her talk. She pointed out that “gi-ta” (song) backwards, “ta-gi,” means surrender. She discussed how the book is primarily about dharma, duty, and thus the surrender to duty.

Why was this an Arjuna moment for me? I had to let go of my attachment to what I believe is best, my stubborn determination to be my own healer at all times. My holistic measures in retaining my tooth (my truth) could take me to a certain point and not beyond. My ability to curb asthma on my own was only partially effective. Just as Arjuna could argue endlessly against going to war, I could go on and on about how ineffective and destructive allopathic medicine is. So much for ideals.

Does this mean I am now stuck in the limits of allopathic medicine? Not at all. I did take a huge step in accepting an oral antibiotic for the very first time in my entire life to deal with the infection left behind by the tooth. I even took a pain pill (also the very first time I’ve taken anything stronger than aspirin), when the local anesthesia wore off and my jaw was throbbing. But today, no pain. And I’m replacing the antibiotic with mega-probiotics. I may or may not take the steroid inhaler, but I have it in my pocket as an option, along with ayurvedic herbs which will be my first line of support.

For those who do not know me, these decisions are HUGE, for I am one who has spent my entire adult life fighting the medical industrial complex. Funny to think of these as growth, but for me, it represents an ability to compromise, to respond to the specific circumstances, to accept my limitations, and to surrender to my duty to take care of myself.

Entering longest night, I bless my limitations, I abolish ego attachments, I surrender to what is required. Shanti, shanti, shanti, om.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Household Name

Google’s doodle on December 14, BKS Iyengar’s 97th birthday, exposed millions of people around the world to our treasured teacher. No amount of paid advertising could’ve given us that level of exposure. No one who happened to land on their search page that day can claim to NOT know who Guruji is. Hopefully more than a few folks clicked further to read the astute blurb about him, and about Iyengar Yoga. For once, the description of Iyengar Yoga was not about the superficial distinctions about props and the overused and misunderstood emphasis on “alignment,” but rather about “tremendous control and discipline,” and the spreading of yoga around the world.

This is a huge boon for Iyengar Yoga Detroit and other centers in communities that have had little exposure to these profound teachings. Maybe, just maybe, instead of hearing “I-what?” we will hear, “Oh, THAT bendy guy who was on Google.” And maybe even, “I wanna try that!”

Here in India, the Google buzz on Guruji’s birthday spread like wildfire. Alongside all the other festivities, we got to bask in the media glow, despite the controversies of the tech giant featuring him.

Maybe these little cartoons will make it a tiny bit easier to explain what Iyengar Yoga is. Like I said earlier, it’s not just props, it’s not just alignment. Iyengar Yoga is not slow, or just for beginners, or just for advanced practitioners, or just for the injured. It can be fast, like the Surya Namaskars we practiced with Geetaji in Bellur, at Guruji’s birthday week celebrations.

It can be completely propless, like I do in many off-site classes throughout the community. It can be for the young, like the children of the Bellur schools, demonstrating at the yoga hall inauguration.

Photo by Marla Apt
“Iyengar Yoga contains all the other forms of yoga,” one student aptly described. “It can be yin yoga, power yoga, partner yoga, restorative yoga, and therapeutic yoga.” The only thing I haven’t seen Iyengar Yoga be is “Doga,” although I wouldn’t rule it out as part of a well-rounded home practice.

So, beyond the trends and gimmicks, here we are, meeting the mat daily, sometimes jumping, sometimes supine, often upside down, always deeply, humbly, profoundly grateful. Happy birthday, Guruji. May we proliferate your teachings and share your wisdom with all earnest seekers.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Guruji is Everywhere

Photo by Christine Havener

We are halfway through Yogānuśāsanam 2015, the international convention of Iyengar Yoga led by Geeta Iyengar. Each day brings 3 hours of āsana, followed by sessions of prāṇāyāma, delicious, filling Indian lunches, then afternoon lectures and presentations. 1600 Iyengar Yoga practitioners are here, ranging from 3-year students to Senior Teachers from around the world who have been studying with Guruji since the 1970s and 80s.

Guruji reportedly requested that both Geetaji and Prashantji inherit the work of Iyengar Yoga at the Pune Institute and beyond, and they are graciously embracing it, each in their own way. They both led several grueling days of meetings regarding certification with Senior Iyengar Yoga teachers, hearing reports from each country, including the all-too-human conflicts and disputes. They will take a month or so to digest the reports and hopefully take some measures to ensure that Iyengar Yoga is being represented well in each nation.

Geetaji seems as well as I’ve seen her in years. Although physical ailments prevent her from total mobility, she is cheerful, gracious, generous, and each morning she seems to walk up to the stage and up the steps with more lightness. She has wholly embraced the mantle of the Iyengar tradition, and she wears the responsibility beautifully.
Photo by Smrti Chawla

This is the first time I’ve been back in India since Guruji’s passing last August. What strikes me and surprises me is not so much his absence, but his full presence. A part of me was dreading coming to a city and an Institute in which he would be gone. I recalled that in his final years, he transitioned from being the regal lion-like presence he was known for, to being a more gentle, grandfatherly presence. When I was here in 2013, at age 94, he would come up to the practice hall via the newly installed elevator, escorted by his granddaughter, Abhijata. He had lost weight, seemed shorter, and had a persistent cough. Still, he dominated the corner of the practice hall, where he held inversions and backbends seemingly forever, while commenting and teaching Abhi and others. For the first time since I started coming to Pune in 2005, I noticed that year that Guruji would sometimes skip group practice in the hall, and stay in his house instead. On those mornings, we went on as usual, but felt his absence keenly.

But now, Guruji seems to permeate every class, every conversation, every āsana. Certainly he shines through Geetaji’s teachings. Yesterday, Geeta held us in long forward extensions, exhorting us to penetrate each corner of the body, as we would butter a slice of bread. Not like cold butter, she said with a wry smile, don’t do Paśchimottānāsana like you just came out of the fridge. She kept us firmly in the pose for long minutes, making us go deeper and deeper, calling forth the spirit of Guruji, insisting we bring more tapas (rigor and discipline) to the pose, as we buried our cheekbones deeper between our shinbones, broadening our elbows, not knowing whether the sweat was coming from our temples or our shins.

This afternoon, we enjoyed a wonderful traditional Indian music performance of violin and tabla, and Guruji’s spirit filled the stadium. They say that the few occasions Guruji left his house was to attend concerts, and that Prashantji is at least as much a musician and music aficionado as he is a yoga practitioner. Guruji’s love of music filled all our hearts, and we all brimmed over with inspiration and adoration.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

That Pune Feeling

Three days into India and I am finally feeling at home. The first two days were disorienting because the main hall at RIMYI (Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute) was closed due to an international convening of Senior Teachers to discuss certification and assessment. This meant no classes and no practice time.

What? That’s all we come to Pune to do. On top of all that, the basement library, where I loved spending afternoons studying in the same room as Guruji, taking notes from vintage volumes as well as the newest releases, was closed. After Guruji passed last year, the librarian, the main reason for his service no longer on this planet, left his position. What’s an out-of-town sadhaka (practitioner) to do?

Connecting with old friends, we spent the first two days practicing together in each others’ flats, making do with minimal props and improvising, running errands, sharing yoga buzz, and comparing notes, yoga geek-style.

All that was rewarding, but today, I finally got to settle into that old Pune feeling. I woke up pre-dawn to get to 7am class with Prashant Iyengar, spent the day studying and practicing some more, then came back at 6pm for a class with Raya. That Pune feeling is a sense of being bone-tired, but inspired, detoxed, and fresh. It means staying in a pose almost to the point of collapse, asking yourself if maybe you are finally too old for this bullshit, and then experiencing a Śavāsana so profound it compensates for your week of jet lag. It means coming home and your roommates have palak dal (spinach lentil soup) and papad (chick pea crisps) on the table already. Then you rinse yourself in the hot shower, take some notes from your classes, then go to sleep on that rock-hard, thin Indian mattress that you love.

Prashantji was in fine form for the sunrise class, as his most jovial, poetic, humorous self. He gave us a choice of several poses to begin: rope Sirsasana, Sirsasana in the center, low rope Adho Mukha Śvanāsana, or Utthita Parṣva Hasta Padanguṣthāsana (extended leg to side). Then he asked us to choose an “index pose”—a pose to come back to repeatedly, for different purposes.

Prashantji asked us to consider not “doing” the pose, but “using” the pose for particular ends. We used the index pose to address gastroenterological conditions, mind/brain conditions, breath conditions, etc.

He exhorted us to use yoga in milligrams and milliliters, applying the metaphor of food. We might serve a large bowl of popcorn, but we would not consume cashews in that amount. Yoga, as such, is a concentrated form of medicine. He explained that this is why he does not teach intensives—it would not be appropriate in such large quantities. There were many more poetic gems that in my sleep-deprived state I only caught half-wind of, but I look forward to a full month of teachings.

The evening class was another experience altogether. Although I think of Raya as a youngster, remembering him in 2005, my first visit to RIMYI, as a long-haired, motorcycle-touring free spirit, he is actually now a husband and father and established yoga teacher. His style of teaching, as always, is very youthful and high-energy.

We went quickly from pose to pose, from sitting to standing, back to sitting, then lying, then jumping up to our feet. He was applying actions from poses like Parivṛtta Upaviṣṭa Koṇāsana and Parivṛtta Jānu Śīrṣāsana, which we held seemingly forever, as we leaped (or crawled or whatever it took) to our feet into Utthita Trikoṇāsana and Pārśvakoṇāsana. Raya even applied the trunk of Anantāsana to these poses, challenging us to keep the imprints from the lying and seated poses into the standing poses.

I am basking in that Pune feeling, eager for another day of practice and study, looking forward to both āsana and prāṇāyāma classes tonight. More later!

And do practice on your own today. Why not start with a pose you love, work up to a pose that challenges you, then end with a soothing pose? Practice for 10 minutes for 30 minutes or 60 minutes, or whatever you can manage.