Learning to Learn- A Personal Reflection

August 24, 2014

by Tracy Forsythe

As a first-timer to the Institute, there is a certain amount of anxiety and trepidation that accompanies you here. I have heard the stories of the strict teachings of Geetaji and Guruji, and this energy seems to have permeated every square inch of RIMYI. As a student with a chronic condition, my main objective coming here was to honour my circumstances and not create himsa or violence in my body. Well, it looks like I came to the right place.

The first class that we were privileged to have Abhijata teach us, our second week here, she said to us, after her keen observation of our extremely large group, Are you here to learn or are you here to do? A great question which deserves sincere assessment of our intentions. After a few detailed and articulately taught asanas, Abhijata calls out- Sirsasana, Parsva Sirsasana (headstand and variation). I heed my mantra for Pune, Run for the Ropes, so off I quickly go, the lone rope seeker. Immediately, in an authoritative tone, Abhijata looks me directly in the eye, Why are you using the rope? I point to my neck. The response is honoured, and there I am the only student hanging in rope Sirsasana in a room of 200. Phew! I feel relieved.

For Salamaba Sarvangasana (shoulder stand), I require more height and support compared to the efficient group setup here at RIMYI. In a class with Rajlaxmi, I separate myself from the group when this pose is called and set up at a column. Once again, a stern query: Why are you not setting up the way I asked? Again, I point to my neck and she understands and lets me be. But as I am preparing my props, an assistant reprimands me, You cannot set up here.  I hold my ground and observe the assistant go to Rajlaxmi, seemingly annoyed at my noncompliance. I see Rajlaxmi assure her that it is alright. Another bullet dodged. I can relax.

Every class is a mental challenge for me, as I want to participate as fully and dynamically as I can, but how do I take the supports, props that I require, for example, a slant board for Adho Mukha Vrksasana (full arm balance) and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (upward facing dog), quickly and efficiently without disrupting the flow of the class? My strategy is to arrive at class very early, take my props, set them nearby and request those observing and taking notes to please guard the equipment. In the thick of the class, as we are in our 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, I hear Gulnaaz telling the students, If you need a slant board, support, take it! I am happy I had prepared to have one with me at the start. I heed the words of Gulnaaz from a class the week before: Know how and when to use the props. They are like an insurance policy. Know your condition and take support as needed. Know why you are using the prop. 

Unfortunately, a student in an earlier class in which the focus was jumpings did not heed the advice. At the beginning of the class the teacher instructed those with conditions to use their common sense and step instead of jump if appropriate. We began the sequences without any props, not even a mat. This particular student, partway through, made the decision to step out of the class and observe instead. This did not sit well with the teacher who quickly addressed the situation, If you attend my class you will participate. Unfortunately, the next day this student's arm was in a sling and bandage with a bag of ice on it. I feel bad for her but had she spoken up regarding her concern or taken the supports that she required, she could have still participated in a way that invoked learning instead of just doing, thus creating this himsa or violence in her body.

Iyengar yoga has sometimes been criticized as a prop heavy method. I disagree. I think us westerners have possibly created a habit of relying on them too much, a form of a security blanket so to speak. I know when I direct my students to put all their props away except for (blank) they seem uncomfortable, looking at me in disbelief. Here at the Institute, the classes are so large, that the most efficient use of space and props has been honed to a tee. However, I think I can take this principle of minimalism home to our student population by asking the same questions that Gulnaaz had posed to us in class.

For some students of yoga from other disciplines or new students to Iyengar yoga, the props may feel distracting. This puts the onus back on me as a teacher. Am I teaching my students why we are using the props and how to use them correctly?

For myself, the props I use enable me to practice safely while at the same time enabling growth and I hope advancement in my awareness to some small degree.  Thank you, Guruji, for ropes, slant boards, belts and blankets. My practice would not be nearly as rich and vibrant without them.  As I reflect on Abhijata's question posed to us earlier, I conclude that I am here to learn how to learn, applying Svadhyaya (self study), an important Niyama to integrate in my life on and off the mat. We must all learn how to learn. After all, we are human beings not human doings.

(This reflection was written one week before Guruji's passing)


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