I’ll admit that zombies and ghosts don’t scare me anymore. The things that go bump in the night have changed over time. When I first started yoga, going into headstand would give me a scare. Being in the presence of Mr. Iyengar also proved to be unnerving. My studies at the Iyengar Institute in India provided me with the opportunity to explore both fears simultaneously.My approach to my headstand suffered from a negativity bias, the tendency to notice and remember negative events and information over positive ones. I would fall out of the pose unpredictably. Being unable to tell left from right and top from bottom was disorienting. Headstand was scary, and I had taken to practicing it close to a wall.  Up to this point Yoga had largely been stress free and happy. As I approached my first trip to India, I started to become nervous.  I was told that wall space could be scarce at the Iyengar Yoga Institute, and I knew Mr. Iyengar, legendary strict, uncompromising yoga master and teacher of my teacher, would be there.

Seeing Mr. Iyengar for the first time was a shock. His presence left me with a heart-thumping, palm-sweating, hyper-focused feeling.  No longer that remote Yoga master that I admired from afar, he seemed instead omni present at the Yoga Institute. During the classes and practice times I would see him twisting himself into some advanced posture at the back of the studio. Situated between pillar and window he would strap himself into an exotic looking wooden yoga prop and stay quiet and still in his yoga pose for a long period of time. He seemed to enter some type of remarkable bodiless concentration yet it was clear that he was aware of everything that was going on around him.  Mr. Iyengar could break his concentration easily to take over the instruction of an ongoing class. He could be playful and even mischievious. In one of the real thrills of my life he came out of his pose and challenged me in Prasarita Padottanasana: “Whose pose is better?” he demanded to a room full of students.  Wide eyed and silent I pointed to him as he laughed slapping me on the top of the head as if to say “wake up.”  His manner could be ferocious. The uncertainty around how he might react at any given time filled me with a sense of fear.  As with any fear it is easy to let your imagination run wild. Migrating to one of the more remote corners of the studio I was sure that it was only a matter of time before I fell out of headstand in front of him or worse yet on top of him.

“You people and your fear complex,” Geeta Iyengar would say in class to us, referring to what she perceived as the stubborn resistance of students to follow her instruction and tackle difficulties. “You want to do your own thing.” I knew from my reading that the ancient Yoga texts recognized fear. The sage Patanjali classified it as one of the five principle causes of suffering called abhinivesah and identified it as a desire to cling to the body, a fear of death. This desire causes one to cling to the old and familiar and resist the new in an attempt to keep yourself protected.  It’s said that Abhinivesah afflicts even the greatest of yoga sages. Being in good company was no consolation to me.

In his section on Sirsasana (headstand) in Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar says “The best way to overcome fear is to face with equanimity the situation of which one is afraid.” As I mulled over these words they seemed to imply that we need to be open to the prospect of failure.  At any moment, your life can change. At any moment one can fall out of headstand. Long ago, yogis recognized this by making non attachment (vairagya) one of the cornerstones of yogic practice. If you want to follow the path of yoga the yogis suggest, you must be open to change, give up the illusory security of the known and take the leap into the unknown.

I pushed ahead with my practice of headstand. I would not try to hide in the corner of the studio.  I would try to practice close to a wall when I could. If a wall wasn’t available I would practice in the center of the room but come down when I started to feel unstable. I asked some of the other yoga teachers attending classes at the institute for advice and watched how others practiced the pose. I practiced it every day and tried new things.  Over the course of the month my disorientation in headstand began to subside. Being in the presence of Mr. Iyengar had helped. I had observed how he practiced and tried to emulate the inward movement of awareness I had seen him demonstrate so expertly.

I came to India with many illusions, one of them being that yoga was all about pleasure and bliss and left with the appreciation that difficulties you encounter are equally important.

Quote of the month

“It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,”From At the Fishhouses by Elizabeth Bishop