Yoga as a Universal Journey: Iyengar Teacher Birjoo Mehta on the True Meaning of Yoga
Christie Hall is a writer, yoga teacher, and long-term Iyengar yoga practitioner. In this article, she describes some important lessons learned at the recent national Iyengar yoga conference in San Diego, titled Yoga, Universal to All, or Sarvabhauma Yog. Particularly noteworthy were the sessions headed up by Birjoo Mehta, a senior Iyengar yoga teacher and increasingly, a leading force within Iyengar yoga.
Birjoo Mehta lept lightly to the stage the first evening of the Iyengar Yoga conference and convention in San Diego, May 10-15. He was to spend the next several days showing us how to create steadiness and balance as a means of bringing consciousness into our poses.
He was a child when he began studying with BKS Iyengar in 1974. As a young man, he traveled with his teacher through Europe, the United States and Australia, demonstrating poses. An engineer by profession, he has led Iyengar yoga conventions in the United Kingdom since 2001, and he traveled to China in June 2011 with Iyengar, teaching the evening sessions with guidance from his teacher.
My teacher, Manouso Manos, had urged us all to get to the conference to experience Birjoo’s teaching, but I achieved far more comprehension of the purpose of yoga than I ever dreamed I might.
"’Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of consciousness’ (Yoga Sutras I,2] Yoga is seen as the study of the workings of the mind. The way the mind interacts with the senses, the breath and lays down emotional imprints. It is a study of consciousness.” ~ Alan Goode
The message from BKS Iyengar has always been twofold: Find the correct alignment in the pose and let consciousness spread until the pose itself felt whole. For some such as me, however, learning alignment has been such a task that spiritual accomplishment has been even more elusive than the turn of a femur. At some point, I mostly gave up trying.
Birjoo brought us a simple how-to message, however, a map any individual can follow to find that stillness in a pose. We should worry less about making alignment corrections in a pose, he taught. Instead, we have to use our minds even more than we use our bodies. As Manouso often notes: Finding resolution with the physical body is considerably less threatening.
Rather than focusing on the fine points of alignment, Birjoo put much more emphasis on the meaning of yoga – stilling the fluctuations of the mind to reach an awareness of our true, unchanging self. He set out the process in a pragmatic fashion, likening it to a corporate initiative, outlining the steps from vision to accomplishment:
1. What is the vision of yoga? Developing the ability to perceive our permanent form.
2. What is the mission of yoga practitioners? Stilling the fluctuations of thought – in order to perceive our true, unchanging self.
3. What is the strategy for accomplishing our mission? Practicing yoga asana.
4. What tactics shall we use in our strategy? Finding alignment in yoga postures.
Like his teacher, Birjoo brought joy to his teachings. He made us laugh with implied threats of long holds of Kapotasana. His hands wove like birds as he spoke. He smiled, he coaxed, he reached for analogies to help us understand how to perceive consciousness within yoga postures and, once perceived, to command its use. By the second day, his voice was a bit hoarse.
I began to understand some writings that had long been obscure to me:
"From fluctuation to stillness, stillness to silence, and silence to sight of the soul is the journey of yoga." BKS Iyengar in Tree of Life p. 121
As much as I longed for the state described in Yoga Sutra 1.3, that having stilled the mind, “The seer resides in his own true splendour,” I was very much stuck in 1.4: “At other times, the seer identifies with the fluctuating consciousness.” (Iyengar, pp. 52-3.)
Birjoo's theme of awareness and consciousness in the pose vs. physical actions proved disconcerting until I had the faith to actually try it. Here are some reflections from Birjoo’s sessions on how this principle applies to the practice of yoga asanas.
Finding Tadasana in Every Pose – Samasthiti
This pose is like the unchanging self at the center of all our fluctuations. It is the touchstone, the place of quiet at the center of a practice. The other poses all become variations. The key to envisioning this is in the name Samasthiti: sama – same; sthiti – steadiness.
To find the quiet within fluctuations of other poses, Birjoo directed us to bring an element of Tadasana to each pose. In Utthita trikonasana, Birjoo suggested we maintain the back leg actions of Tadasana in both front and back legs as we slowly lowered into the pose.
I kept the back leg and buttock in the neutrality of Tadasana, and connected the front leg buttock bone firmly toward the heel. Although physically exhausted after a challenging day of standing poses, I found that a surprising kind of steadiness resulted; a quiet, unfluctuating mind translated to a pose that felt grounded.
The next afternoon, he brought Tadasana to the practice of Bharadvajasana 1. Once we had turned the abdomen and chest, Birjoo asked us to recreate the torso of Tadasana. One side of my body had become noticeably shorter. Once I opened and lengthened it, again quietness descended.
We touch back to universality when we bring Samasthiti to other poses.
For any other physical activity, the movement itself is the point. In yoga, the asana starts when the activity and movement of creation stops. We pay attention to the details of the pose as we create it, then, once in the pose, we let awareness move to where consciousness is. Then we seek to balance the consciousness throughout the pose.
The second day of the conference, Birjoo asked us to add another layer of awareness to our poses. In all the asymmetrical standing poses, consciousness concentrates in one leg or the other, he noted. He described it this way: activity, the movement itself is the point. In yoga, the asana starts when the activity and movement of creation stops. We pay attention to the details of the pose as we create it, then, once in the pose, we let awareness move to where consciousness is. Then we seek to balance the consciousness throughout the pose.
Where there is excess consciousness, the pose is more dense. Where there is less consciousness, the pose becomes light.
Birjoo outlined this process in Utthita trikonasana, where the back leg becomes light, with consciousness concentrated in the front leg. He suggested moving the bones where consciousness, density remained, and to move from the flesh to bring consciousness to the pose where it was light, such as the back leg.
Another consciousness-balancing technique works through awareness of opposites. He suggested that where the flesh was puffed out or extended, excess consciousness existed. He also equated this with ahamkara, sense of self. On the opposite side was an interruption of consciousness. To balance consciousness, we had to reopen that interruption. For example, a locked elbow produces excess consciousness along the inner elbow, and we must release the back side of the elbow to create evenness. In Uttanasana, the puffiness of the upper or lower back requires an opening of the front chest or abdomen.
These modifications required something much different than what he termed the beginner’s approach of paying attention to aligning the pose. Instead he invited us to arrive in a pose and explore, to be open to the areas calling for our awareness.
Once we find heightened perception in one area, we next draw that awareness to the opposite region of the body to balance awareness, consciousness throughout the pose. All in all, the conference gave me a whole different level of understanding of the subtler levels of experience in yoga asana and of the amazing depth of the teachings of BK. Iyengar.
Christie Hall began studying yoga in 1995 to cope with crippling back pain. Her home practice started with the book, Yoga: The Iyengar Way. She started teaching in 1997 after studying with Iyengar teacher Karin O'Bannon and she has studied as student and as teacher exclusively with Iyengar teachers, including BKS Iyengar in Colorado in 2005 and Geeta Iyengar in 2007. More of her writings can be found on her blog: www.pratipaksha.com. Her Web site is www.christieyoga.com.