On January 26, 2001 a huge earthquake struck Gujarat in western India, killing over 20,000 people and destroying tens of thousands of homes. In response BKS Iyengar sent 15 of his teachers to stricken villages there to offer free yoga to the survivors. The teachers took with them a sequence of poses devised by Iyengar especially for victims of catastrophes such as earthquakes and hurricanes. (I hope such a sequence is being offered freely in Texas and Florida right now – and, sadly, in many another place around this widely-suffering world.)
Later that sequence was circulated among Iyengar teachers everywhere and I had a copy, so, for several weeks right after 9/11, I taught only that sequence in all my classes in San Francisco, along with the continuous recitation throughout every class of the Maha Mrityunjaya mantra, which is a famous ancient mantra meant to nourish us and lift us up in times of trouble, even in the face of death.
Of course it is “events” like these that capture the headlines and our attention, and call forth our compassion. But what interests me as much these days is the slow-motion catastrophe of America – and Gaia - sweeping over all of us and shaking us, some of us anyway, to our roots.
I see this in many of my students lately, a kind of pervasive tiredness and loss of focus. Underneath that, I sense there are feelings, for some, of distrust and fear and helplessness and hopelessness. And I wonder what I can offer them as their teacher.
Iyengar’s sequence won’t really work right now – it wasn’t designed for this. So I’ve thought that maybe I should be teaching more restorative poses to help my students with their fatigue. But then I think that maybe what they need more than that are invigorating poses to give them energy and courage, and then I start thinking about Kali. (And of course here we are, baby, right in the middle of the Kali Yuga.) Or maybe I should mix it up a little, some of this, some of that, a few restoratives and then some stronger stuff. But then I don’t really like that either, too wishy-washy.
So what am I left with in these stressful, exhausting times, these times of unreality – surreality really – what can I offer my students? All I can come up with is this: Keep It Real. I actually don’t think it makes any difference what sequences I teach, as long as I’m helping my students stay grounded in the actual moment-by-moment reality of their poses, without fantasy, without escaping into wishful thinking, without denying the fleshy stubbornness – and flightiness - of the breath and the mind. I want to encourage my students to pay attention, to be willing to notice what actually goes on in their poses. It doesn’t matter what they think the pose is “supposed” to feel like, or look like.
It’s only what actually happens that is useful. We don’t have to like everything we discover, we can certainly work to change things in our practice, but all that begins with clear-minded seeing in the present moment.
That’s what I try to teach in every pose in every class, and I heartily recommend it to you in your own practice.