When asked how Geetaji wanted to spend her 60th birthday she replied that she would like to celebrate it, as she had all of her other birthdays, with her yoga practise. This response in many ways summarises her character in as much as it reflects both the depth of her humility and her devotion to yoga. However, it became apparent that students were going to visit Pune anyway, and there was even talk of Geeta offering to teach two classes a day at the institute. When numbers exceeded capacity, the PYC Hindu Gymkhana was suggested as a venue (Mr. Iyengar had taught there in 1936). With this news the floodgates opened, and 539 people arrived to celebrate Geeta’s birthday in December 2004.
On the first morning of the five day event, Geeta arrived to rapturous applause which she received with her characteristically quiet, self deprecating manner. Unperturbed, she welcomed everyone and began the teaching. At this point the depth of her humility was palpable. I couldn’t help but put myself in her shoes for a moment; there were so many senior students from twenty five different countries, some of whom had studied with Geeta and Mr. Iyengar for many decades – what was she going to do? As if from an infinite source, the original points kept coming, the teaching was fresh and pertinent with a mix of highly considered thought and spontaneous application. Even though we were literally mat to mat Geeta would take pains to have someone, who was working the pose incorrectly, to be attended to by the helpers in the room. She genuinely cares about the asanas and the students and even in such a large space, with such large numbers there was often a sense of intimacy. Her sincerity, compassion and humanity shone through; the teaching was as thought provoking and inspiring as ever.
After a while Mr. Iyengar arrived and they taught together, and quite a formidable Duo they were. What was apparent from the start was that their passion for the subject of yoga wasstronger than ever. We spent three hours in the morning on the asanas, after lunch there was an opportunity to chant Patanjali’s yoga sutras,and the astottara satanamavalih (108 names of Patanjali) and after a brief rest, two hours pranayama.
In Geeta’s opening address she explained that sadhana (practise) can be delineated into three stages in order to increase our understanding of it; essentially the stages are inextricably linked, but in dissecting them we shed light on the process of the sadhana as it evolves. The first stage is bahiranga sadhana (external), then antaranga sadhana (internal) and lastly antaratma (innermost). The three stages of Sadhana each lead to an increased level of absorption, ultimately until one is absorbed in the Soul. As each and every cell of the body becomes cultured in the bahiranga sadhana the consciousness becomes more refined and here Geeta likened the body to a ripened fruit, in terms of its state of readiness to enter a more subtle level of practise. This analogy was broadened out and a parallel made between how we some times eat food but do not absorb the goodness from it. Likewise, we can practice the postures on occasion but not feel the benefit, more time is necessary for assimilation, as Geeta said, “although you are practising, sometimes the body does not take it; sometimes the mind does not take it.” Like the tough skin of a fruit, the body can be hard and unresponsive until the asanas have had a chance to break down these patterns of tightness. The cells of the body need to be cultured through the bahiranga sadhana as a pre-requsite to any spiritual understanding.
This exposition was brought alive as it was then immediately interwoven with the teaching of the asanas. As we applied ourselves on a more internal level, we were experiencing this process of the sadhana deepening. Standing in tadasana we were encouraged to keep our minds “juicy”, in other words, not to dehydrate the brain by overworking it, but rather letting the intelligence of the body-part being used to be awakened. This awakened consciousness vibrates in every cell of the body, mind and breath, ultimately fusing all of the three stages of sadhana.
It is very difficult to do justice to explaining Geeta’s teaching of tadasana; it cannot be broken down by just repeating the words she used, but a few points can be shared to give a flavour of the teaching. Through the masterful use of metaphor, intuitive timing and pacing, she was leading us through a very familiar pose whilst revealing more subtle levels of application.
Samasthiti translates as “equal state”, where we aspire to have “attention without tension”, so the cells become aware, throughout the whole of the body, simultaneously. For example, in tadasana, we experience vitality in the legs but this vitality lessens as we ascend up the leg. Bahiranga sadhana merges into antaranga sadhana as the vitality in the legs spreads to the dull parts. Bahiranga sadhana is initiated in the feet as they are extended forward from the heel whilst keeping the arch of the foot lifted. Then as the mid-shin area is moved into the calf muscles, the mid and top thighs begin to work, the vitality spreads up the legs and antaranga sadhana comes about.
In urdhva hastasana care was taken to stop the inner shoulder blades moving out as the arms were lifted up with the palms facing each other. This was avoided by dipping the shoulder blades in before lifting the arms and at the same time drawing them down along with the trapezium. The upward lift of the arms was initiated in the chest; from the centre of the armpit the skin lifts up towards the little finger. By contrast, the skin on the back-facing part of the arm was drawn down, from the thumb through the deltoids, taking the area between the shouders with it. The deltoids move down into the body and away from eachother, creating space between the top of the arm and the neck. I found this is a highly useful series of actions to become sensitive to as they can also be employed in other asanas, most noteably, sirsasana, adho mukha svanasana, adho mukha vrksasana.
The relationship between the arms and legs was also highlighted; it was stressed that the head of the femur bone should be taken back whist the arms ascended up. Geeta pointed out that when the head of the femur bone comes forward, the mind wanders, and so the possibility of taking the pose to a deeper level of sadhana is thereby lost. As the top thighs roll in and back, and the tailbone is then brought in, the pelvis becomes compact and lifted and thereby the spine is free to ascend. This ascension is then taken further as the the arms lift up as from the chest. We repeated the asana many times, each one revealing a deeper layer of understanding. The sensitivity to the direction of the skin, flesh and bone takes the experience of the pose to a more internal level.
In bahiranga sadhana we are “Doing” the asana; as the practise evolves into antaratma sadhana we are “Being” in the asana. Geeta’s teaching of the asanas in this way perfectly illustrated her opening address about the deepening levels of sadhana; we were having first hand experience of this process under her guidance. The teaching was profound in that it was so simple and yet also extremely powerful. A Master is said to be not just a teacher, but someone who embodies the Essence of their subject and has the power to evoke it to others. It was clear that with Geetaji and Guruji we were in the presence of a two Masters.
Published in Dipika, Spring 2006