September brings with it the end of summer and the call back to school. Watching the local school children jump on the bus left me wondering:  What is it about the notion of going back to school that is so evocative?

As an adult, the invitation to go back to school came in the form of an ancient looking blue and silver scrolled aerogram from the Indian City of Pune. I had been admitted to study yoga for six weeks at the Iyengar Institute in Pune, India, the home of one of the world’s most famous teacher and practitioner of Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar.

I boarded the plane for India in believing I would be embarking on a transformative spiritual experience. I was leaving behind a job offer and a comfortable conventional lifestyle. I had never traveled abroad. I would be taking this trip alone.

The journey would take me two days, landing in the City of Mumbai at three in the morning. I had arrived in India prepared to practice yoga poses.  Nothing I had learned in the past however could explain how this land of yoga produced the poverty, chaos and squalor I found. Traveling from the airport to the train station, the dawn light revealed entire families taking cover under carts and sleeping on broken sidewalks. There were as many animals on the street as there were motorized vehicles. Intermixed between the sea of street vendors, donkey drawn street carts and noisy auto rickshaws were tiny street side shrines where the devoted would pray.

At the Iyengar Institute I took classes and practiced four hours a day. Nothing was as I had anticipated it. The teachers, Mr. Iyengar, daughter Geeta and son Prashant were strong and strict. They referred to us collectively as “you people.” They subscribed to the school of tough love; no coddling or hand holding on the syllabus. The classes were packed beyond capacity, the yoga hall seething with 60 to 70 people at a time.  Alliances would have to be built with other students just to hold onto yoga props.Mr. Iyengar was present each day, practicing complicated yoga postures and stepping in from time to time to take over the teaching of a class. In person the man that I had idealized for so many years was brilliant, compassionate and ferocious.

As I came to the end of my stay I counted the days before my departure. The noise, food, the tough love teaching and hours of daily yoga had broken me down. Upon returning to America, however, I couldn’t get India out of my mind.  I remembered the kindness and generosity of the people there: many had so little but were willing to  share what they had. I had been unprepared for the impact the complexity of everyday life in India would have on me. My back to school trip to India had changed me but in ways that I had never expected. I had been taken beyond my expectations to an unfamiliar place that I had never been.

Perhaps that is why going back to school is so important no matter what age we are.  In taking the step to learn we open ourselves up to opportunity. The yoga teacher T.K.V. Desikachar  defines yoga as a means “to attain what was previously unattainable”.  When we go back to school the starting point may be to do something we are unable to do. As we take up our studies we find the means for bringing that desire into action.  That step is yoga. The yoga practice can be about learning postures, we learn to touch our toes or relax in a posture.  We can gain insight into ourselves by studying and practicing with others. With each of these lessons we are “taken to a place we have never been before and each of these changes is yoga”.

Upon returning from India I never took that job offer but decided instead to study and teach yoga full time.  Going back to school had changed my life in ways that I could never have imagined.

Supta Padangusthasana

The posture: Supta Padangusthasana. In Sanskrit supta means lying down, pada means foot and angustha means the big toe. We practice this as an adapted posture that works the whole foot rather than just the toes. A yoga belt is placed around the sole of one foot rather than holding the big toes with the fingers.

Lie flat on the back with the feet against a wall and the legs fully extended.   Keeping the left leg straight,  bend your right knee and bring it toward your chest.  Loop a belt around the sole of your right foot and hold one end of the belt with each hand. Inhale and raise your right leg until it is perpendicular to the floor. (If unable to bring the right leg perpendicular to the floor, bend the knee and bring the thigh perpendicular to the floor. Work to extend the leg, keeping the knee over the hip.)  In stage 2 of the pose take hold of the belt with the right hand and lower the leg to the right.   Hold the posture for 20 to 30 seconds in each phase and repeat on the other side.

Work in the posture
Extend the backs of the legs. Firm the muscles of the fronts of the legs. Keep the soles of the feet stretching. Relax your facial muscles and neck. Do not proceed  beyond a moderate stretch.

Removes stiffness in the low back and can relieve back ache. Relieves sciatic pain. Helps to treat osteoarthritis of the hips and knees.  All you need to practice this pose is a belt and wall. Daily practice will bring steady results.