I overheard two friends talking the other day about the difficulties faced by true spiritual renunciates (monks and nuns). One of my friends said, “But it's supposed to be difficult. That's why we are here, why we haven't chosen that life.” I think we all begin a spiritual practice out of a desire to make our life better but the truth is that life gets harder in many ways along the path. A true spiritual practice takes us into the darkness, it places larger and larger obstacles in our way as tests and initiations, and it forces us to reevaluate everything in our life.
One of the things that gives me solace in these times of darkness is knowing that many other have been there before me. That I am not alone in this journey. In fact, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali very clearly outlines the nine major disruptive forces or impediments: disease, dullness, doubt, procrastination, laziness, craving, erroneous views, inability to reach finer stages and backsliding (Y.S.I.30). These lists are generally ordered from most important or first in a stage to last. Disease or illness is first on the list. When we are experiencing physical discomfort it overwhelms our consciousness. It can cause a rippling effect into dullness, doubt and procrastination. I had this experience recently.
The day before I left India I contracted a high fever (102 degrees). As I was just experiencing the fever and body aches without any digestive disturbances, I decided to continue on my journey home. I took some Tylenol for the first flight which wore off several hours into the second flight which was 15 hours from Dubai to San Francisco. I believe that fevers can be one of the most effective ways for our body to deal with viruses (for which we don't have alleopathic remedies) and so I was reluctant to take pain reliever again. Instead, I suffered greatly during that flight. I got home and was in bed for another several days with a high fever aches and pain and no appetite. Due to the illness and jet lag, I was sleeping irregularly throughout the day and waking up in the middle of the night. Sometimes, I would get up and do some restorative practice to help with the body aches and sometimes I just watched TV on my computer. Instead of resisting the illness, I accepted it and did what I could to care for myself.
The fever finally abated and my appetite came back for one day and then I sunk into a deep emotional depression, the likes of which I have not experienced since my 20s. I had no appetite meaning I felt like I was choking when I ate and no motivation to do anything. Whenever I tried to do asana practice to help with my condition I would feel worse rather than better. This caused me to doubt my practice. In fact, it caused me to doubt my whole spiritual path. Why had I flown all the way around the world and spent a lot of money only to come back so ill partially as a result of the polluted environment that I was in? I had said it and meant it when I told people that I was ok if I didn't get any classes with Geeta or Abhi while I was studying at the Institute in Pune but when I came back after all that effort of getting there with very little gained I felt disappointed and empty.
Was the depression a residual grieving for the passing of Guruji, B.K.S. Iyengar? Was it simply a result of the physical depression of my body functions as a result of the viral infection and fever? Was the fever a physical manifestation of a spiritual burning off process? I felt empty inside and the lack of appetite took me back to feeling like I did when I was anorexic. A feeling like you are trying to will your physical body into non-existence because you really don't want to be here. Needless to say, I was worried about the situation. And, the way I was doing my practice seemed to be harming me rather than hurting me. I was at a loss.
This is exactly the situation for which many of the spiritual texts insist that a teacher is necessary. I was finally able to make it to class with Manouso. I explained the situation to him and he gave me some guidance on how to turn the appetite back on and relieve the depression while at the same time recuperating from the illness. I didn't appreciate in the beginning because like anyone I simply want the magic pill that is going to make me better, but instead Manouso always gives guidance which you then have to explore and experience for yourself.
One of the things we discussed for increasing the appetite was the action in the lower abdomen in Supta Virasana. That day in class we practiced a pose that is little taught in regular classes, Sirsasana in Viparita Karani with the lower back on a chair and the head on the floor. It is a difficult pose to “get right” with the props. I have practiced it before and not felt anything except for the difficulty of keeping my legs away from the wall and a strain in my hip flexors. But, that day I was able to do the pose in a way and efficiently effected the kriya or action of Viparita Karani in the lower abdomen. It is a similar action to the one in Supta Virasana and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (full pose without props).
It took a couple of minutes but I kept going after the action in my abdomen. Manouso has the best description in that it feels like a gripping and a stretching at the same time. While in the pose, I felt my appetite come back. Something got turned back on in my body. The energy which was released in my lower abdomen flowed into my chest which was making the Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana shape. It pushed away the clouds obscuring my heart and relieved the depression. This all happened in the span of a couple of minutes.
I was present for the rest of the class and continued to feel better. Then, Manouso ended class with a long (10 minute) Savasana with a bolster under the knees. As soon as I lay down with my back flat on the floor I felt the edges of the waves of depression begin to gather at the periphery, so I rolled over and went to talk to Manouso. He said, “You're done. Go home.” and so I did. I sat in my car for a moment and realized I was ravenously hungry and so I went and got something to eat. I woke up the next morning and the depression was lifted. I followed Manouso advice for practice for the next couple of days and continued to feel better.
I talked to Manouso about this experience and asked him about the power of the action in the abdomen on an energetic level. He said that he has a similar experience but the difficulty is in trying to teach someone else to do this. He said, “It's like trying to explain the color blue to someone who has been blind from birth.” It was then that I realized at an even deeper level the genius in B.K.S. Iyengar's use of props especially in therapeutic work. Using my own experience as a reference, I felt in my own body how certain actions and shapes in the asana could effect a powerful transformation in a very short time. But, when a student comes to me with a similar problem they may not be able to do the pose or may not yet have an understanding in their body. The props are a short-cut that an experienced and talented teacher can use to try and effect that experience in someone.
I talked to my friend about this experience and she named it “resilience” which is a word that I also use in terms of talking about the benefits of the practice. We can be assured that as long as we are alive that we will continue to face obstacles and impediments such as disease and doubt and laziness. What our practice can help us to do is “bounce back” more quickly. Faith, the greatest antidote and friend to a spiritual aspirant, can only come from direct experience though. My faith was restored through this experience I had. The power of yoga to radically transform the body, mind and spirit was reaffirmed for me. The experience I had was like a jumpstart. The battery in my car was dead and now it's charged, but I must continue to keep the engine running in order to fully charge it again. This is called abhyasa, earnest effort toward a goal.
Supta Virasana (supine heroes pose) This pose can be difficult for people who have tightness in the ankles or groins or hip problems. Luckily, due to the props, it is accessible to almost anyone! For ankle tightness, place a rolled blanket under your ankles. For knee problems, place a blanket behind the knees and take a higher support under the back. One of my favorite versions is a preparation for Parynkasana (yogi's couch) where you place a tall brick between the bottom shoulder blades and another brick under the back of the head. I have been starting my practice with this pose recently, and it helps me to gather and recover energy.