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Folding in (or what is Iyengar Yoga?)

You know you are in an Iyengar Yoga studio by the blankets. There is a pile of them. They are stacked in the studio on a shelf that is the precise size the shelf needs to be to hold the stack of blankets. Each blanket is folded the same way, neat side out. Usually, there is a small sign or notice near the stack explaining the right way to fold the blankets and politely asking you to comply.

You know you are an Iyengar Yoga student if you find yourself refolding blankets that have been folded incorrectly, or if you notice and rectify messy ends. You find yourself doing this quietly, while you are waiting for other instructions or while you are preparing to enter a pose.

You know you are practicing Iyengar Yoga because you care about the blankets. You care about the blocks, the bolsters and the belts. The chairs. The ropes. The setu-bunda bench and the backbenger. You care about these things because they change the way you understand the asana and your experience of the asana. They allow you in to yoga, no matter what your starting point was when you began all those years ago, or when you began your practice today.

It is these props that most often define Iyengar yoga in the eyes of the novice, or the broader yoga world. People see Iyengar and think props, or see props and think Iyengar. And while it is true that BKS Iyengar’s use and development of props was innovative, for him, they served a greater purpose. They helped make the true features of yoga accessible for all.

But there is more to the Iyengar system than props. As Mr Iyengar said, yoga is a about creating ultimate freedom. He was referring to freedom of the body, the mind and of the self. These freedoms are like layers of understanding, each leading to a deeper knowledge. In the same way the body itself has layers of skin, muscle, tendon, bone, and organs, so these layers (or sheaths, in the yoga language), allow us to delve deeper into our mind, and our consciousness, with the starting point, or the outer layer, being the body.

So, what have blankets to do with freedom of consciousness?

I can only talk from my own experience. Before I began practicing yoga, I was highly strung, stressed, and running mostly on adrenalin. Past trauma meant that I was mostly dissociated, which means I didn’t inhabit my body. I was so absent from my physical experience that I used to get mystery bruises from bumping into furniture without knowing I had done so.

My first yoga class happened to be at an Iyengar school, but this was merely a coincidence (or not!), as I didn’t expressly choose Iyengar. I think now that if I hadn’t gone to an Iyengar class I may not have become a student of yoga. My first teacher, Justin Herold, was quiet and deliberate in his movements and his teaching. Every class began the same way, with supta virasana, and I experienced and observed his same questions of every new student. Sit between your feet. Do you have pain in your ankles or knees? Get two blankets and a bolster. Lie back. Sit up. Get two blocks and another blanket. And on it would go, until he was satisfied the student had the right props to begin their experience of their first asana.

This experience of the asana, no matter what the physical abilities, is the doorway to freedom in the body. For me, it was the doorway to my body. The attention to precision and to technique invited me to consider my inner heel, or the bridge of my nose – to notice that I even had an inner heel was a transformation. Not just consider, but to ponder, to contemplate, and to explore.

Gradually, then, I began to inhabit my body. My initial introduction to the inner heel gave way to deeper understandings of muscles, ligaments, bones. Of action and counteraction, of balance and stability. The Iyengar system’s emphasis on alignment and technique keeps each asana fresh, as the asana are never fully mastered. The props support alignment, which create knowledge about how the asana are to be experienced. Props, too, allow different experiences of the asana. Parivrtta Parsvakonasana is understood differently against the wall, or on a chair, or with bricks. These experiences invite the engagement of intelligence: “what happens when I lift my collarbone?”

Other aspects of the Iyengar system extend the freedom of the body to the freedom of the mind. Timing is another important feature. Lengthy holds promote experience on the physical level, but also promotes mental freedom. Sometimes this is first experienced as a lack of freedom. I remember my first experience of resistance. Of anger at my teacher for making me hold a pose for a ridiculously long period of time (probably 30 seconds); for not seeing that I was suffering and for banging on about the inner heel or something stupid! Then, one day, my teacher starting telling the class what we were thinking, that we were mad at her for not releasing us, or we felt abandoned by her because she hadn’t told us to put our arms down, or that our sudden “need to pee” right when she was about to take us in to Virabradasana I was an old tape, played by every student since the dawn of time. With this gentle humour, she invited us to consider how we reacted to our practice, and how we react to other things in our life that make us uncomfortable.

After a while, I began to notice that discomfort was merely discomfort. It didn’t need fixing. It could be just experienced. That some days I hated yoga and some days I loved it, and so it was with my life. I began to learn about patience, and acceptance. I began to breath in traffic rather than bellow. As Mr Iyengar once said, I began to “bring my mind and my intelligence to stretch as my muscles stretch, and to contract as my muscles contract.”

Even though, so far, my experience of Iyengar yoga has largely been of the asanas, I am beginning to understand how this practice can ultimately lead to freedom of the self. How the ability to be fully present to our own experience, and connected to a tradition of wisdom that dates back thousands of years, can allow me to free myself from today’s knee pain or petty frustrations.

And the blankets? In a totally different context, I once met a teacher who said, “how you do one thing is how you do everything”. Iyengar teachers and students fold their blankets neatly because they understand how alignment matters, how the way you fold your body matters, and how one small thing, fully experienced and fully understood, can lead to intelligence and consciousness.

Folding back with teacher Frank Jesse and a fellow curious student

It all started on Boxing Day

For a long time JP has wondered out loud that the Boxing Day quake had shaken up the earth so much it was causing all the other quakes around the region.

Tonight, the ABC’s 7.30 program interviewed Professor Kerry Sieh, a seismologist with the California Institute of Technology. Here is part of the transcript, which can also be seen (there’s a video link too), here:

“That sort of flurry of giant earthquakes has only occurred a couple of times in the historical records. We know there was a flurry of very large earthquakes in the 1830s, one of which Charles Darwin felt while he was in Chile during the voyage of the Beagle, and then again in the 1950s and early 1960s.

So the 2004 earthquake began a sequence that is now continuing through the Chilean earthquake of last year to the earthquake recently in Japan. We don’t know yet whether that’s going to be the end of it or whether in fact this extraordinarily robust sequence of great earthquakes will continue…

We can predict. We can’t predict the details of when a particular 8.4 or 8.7 or 9.2 or in the case of Christchurch a 6.3 will occur.

But we can say that there there be aftershocks to both the earthquakes that occurred last year in Chile, earthquakes that occurred in Christchurch and earthquake that occurred here in Japan.

For example, after the earthquake in 2004, we’ve had 50 earthquakes between magnitude 6 and 6.7 in Sumatra, we’ve had seven between, greater than 7.5. So we can say something about the numbers of aftershocks that will occur in that region of Japan.

We also have some long range forecasts of great earthquakes. For example, there’s an 8.8 that we forecast off the West coast of central Sumatra yet to happen. There are concerns about northern Chile, about southern Peru, which haven’t had great earthquakes for a long, long time. Similarly, between Taiwan and southern Japan and even parts of Japan still have the possibility of magnitude 8 or so in the next few decades.” – Professor Kerry Sieh

The terrible situation in Japan is a long way from being over. Even I, who lived through something similar, find it hard to comprehend what’s ahead for those communities. Until further notice, sales of my book (all of the income from the sales) will go towards disaster relief in Japan.

End of the Red Cross campaign

It is with sadness that I report the closure of my “everyday hero” page through the Red Cross as they have closed their Pacific Tsunami appeal. I fell a long way short of my fundraising goal. Lessons learned: a. you really have to put HEAPS of time into something like this. It has given me a new respect for people who do raise thousands of dollars in their spare time for their favourite causes. b. Get onto lots of people’s lists. This I didn’t really manage to do, largely because I was a little shy asking people I know who have long lists and also because of a. (I didn’t put enough time in). Still, something is better than nothing and I haven’t given up … I will just be directing the money I raise from now on directly to charities in Samoa, rather than through the Red Cross. I’ll keep you updated. Finally, I want to send out a huge thank you to everyone who did support my goal and who either bought a copy of my book or donated directly. May all your dreams come true.

Back in Bangkok

I’m back in Bangkok for a fellowship on journalism and trauma for journalists across Australia, as part of the Dart Centre for journalism and trauma. It starts tomorrow so I haven’t met the fellows yet but it feels timely what with Samoa, Philippines and Indonesian catastrophes. We’re missing at least one participant because he is now homeless, and many more are flying in direct from these zones. These disasters take years to recover from for those people living right in the thick of it. See this great story by Stephen Fitzpatrick on the PTSD impact of the earthquake in Padang on the people in Banda Aceh. http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,,26184866-25837,00.html
Another interesting piece is speculation from scientists (after previously denying it) that the recent earthquakes are linked: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,26196445-5013404,00.html

Survival and change

A lot of people tell me my story is amazing because of what I went through and how I came out of it. But I reckon really all that happened to me was I went through massive change and survived it!  All of us are doing that all the time, aren’t we, as we negotiate this spinning world?

So what are my top survival tips?

– trust your instincts. If they say climb the rock, climb the rock!

– listen! To your inner voice, and to the external guides (other people) out there.

– finally, remember the change isn’t personal. The universe (or whoever it is inflicting the change on you) isn’t out to get you; it’s just doing its thing, turning, adapting, making underwater mountains or whatever other seismic shift is necessary.

Happy changing!