an elemental investigation sparked by Geeta Iyengar

I am standing in a Hatha Yoga pose called Warrior. My knees and hips burn. I think, this is enough. I am trying my hardest but I can’t see how holding the pose for so long could be good for me. 

The teacher, Dr. Geeta Iyengar, has told us that in asana practice the mind is stilled because all thoughts gravitate to the body. My mind is consumed by the experience my body is going through. Far from being calm, however, I feel as though I am clamouring just to stay above water.

One of the teacher’s assistants steps behind me. My front knee is shaking, but he indicates for me to bend it further. What? I think. I’ve gone as far as I can. The joints in my legs are prone to injury and I am doing my best to protect them.

Subtly and strongly, another thought enters my mind. It is of a very different nature than the habitual nervous caution, something like—If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it. I stop listening to the anxious thought that says my knees are too sensitive for the pose. Instead, I listen to my knees.

As the bend in my leg deepens, the asana becomes much more comfortable. I have a strong body! My torso, limbs and head shift and suddenly feel at home. In the Warrior pose, I sense my body anew. Happiness rushes through me at this discovery: my body is finding a place of its own.

Fire starts with an infusion of
A spark is needed.
Once initiated fire is self-

“Conference” conjures an image of stiff surroundings and lots of talk, but this event was meant for experiencing yoga, not just discussing it. During each of the five days of the national Iyengar conference, 300 or so participants filled a gymnasium to practise pranayama and asana as a group. Dr. Iyengar herself taught most of the classes, which were lengthy and rigorous. Geetaji, as her students call her, was making her first visit to Canada. Energy was certainly high.

As for me, I stumbled into the conference. I have practised yoga for five years, but this was my first encounter with the Iyengar method.

To counter the trepidation I felt at being a newcomer, I reminded myself determinedly that I would find something at the conference that I could use in my life. I knew I was lucky for the opportunity to learn from a woman for whom yoga has been a way of life since childhood.

Geeta Iyengar, who I could easily describe as a ball of fire, encourages her students to reach beyond their comfort zone. During the conference, she would not let anyone give in to weakness. I think she could see the capacity and intelligence concealed within each of us, and she was devoted to helping us find it. Her understanding seemed to be based on a great deal of personal experience.

At age ten, when she had already suffered many childhood illnesses, Geeta became seriously sick again. When she came home from the hospital, her father refused to buy the long list of medications that doctors had prescribed. He told her she would have to choose between the illness, which might mean her death, and yoga practice.

Geetaji faced a great challenge at a young age and found the power within to survive and thrive. She has since devoted her entire life to yoga, becoming one of the foremost teachers of the Iyengar Method of Yoga, which was founded by her father, B.K.S. Iyengar.

Although Geetaji’s story is very different from my own, it inspired me to make a stretch. Could it be that things I perceive as hard and fast realities—like how far my knee can bend or how little money I have—are, at least in part, a reflection of my mind?

Dr. Iyengar’s opening talk immediately caught my attention. She said that we are “missing the gold” if we do asanas as a physical practice only. “More than the body, it is the mind which is getting cultured…Even five minutes in Shavasana gives a feeling of quietness. If that experience is stored, understood and opened at the right time, we will know how tranquility is brought about.”

“The experience,” she explained enticingly, “leaves an imprint.”

Fire results
 from the very rapid combination
of fuel and atmospheric oxygen.
Combustion occurs at the
between fuel and flame.
is an exchange.

I am lying on my back listening to Geetaji’s voice. She is teaching us pranayama and wants us to start with the basics. We are in Shavasana, the corpse pose, so that our bodies will relax as we focus on the breath.

I can’t relax at all. The gymnasium is very cold and lying down in it is even colder. All morning, the gym has been pumped full of cool air by an air-conditioning system that is out of sync with the weather. My impulse is to curl up tight in my blankets.

Geetaji is not disturbed. As much as I wish her to, she does not ask us to get up. Instead, she teaches us to breathe in a way that will generate heat from within, while remaining in the place where we are. She addresses the temperature directly, saying it is just one challenge among many that we face in life.

When Geetaji lays out the options—shrink up, leave the room, or face the cold and do something about it—I realize that the time to start practising is now. I breathe slowly and smoothly. Each inhalation lifts and expands my chest a little more. My mind is no longer occupied by the struggle to keep warm, but soon warmth radiates from the core of my body out to the tips.

“Earth, water, fire, air, ether,” Geetaji says another day during asana class. “The elements are there in the body.”

As we move through a series of poses, Geetaji brings our attention to the regions and sensations in the body associated with each element. I learn that “fire” is what seems to give the lift to my body. As I expand my chest upward, there really does seem to be a fire inside. When this part of my body does its job, keeping me upright and tall, the parts that usually overwork can relax.

I am fascinated by the effortlessness I experience throughout my body when I put in the effort to lift my chest.

is an exergonic chemical reaction:
much energy is released.

I left the Iyengar conference feeling elated. For days, I was relaxed and standing tall. At the time, I was struggling to make my way in a new city, I didn’t yet have a job, and my goal of living in an apartment of my own seemed a long way off. But I took home plenty of enthusiasm to face the challenges.

I wondered why I felt so good. It made sense that by putting a lot of energy out, in the form of concentration and physical exertion, I would get a lot back. But that didn’t explain the confidence I felt, nor how the spiritual practices had helped bring it about.

If what Geetaji said was true—that positive experiences from yoga practice can be stored as “wealth” in our minds—then I wanted to understand this experience and build on it.

Fire contained a clue. I had a feeling that if I learned more about this element, then I would better understand my experience at the yoga conference. Understanding how joy and confidence arose in my mind during yogic practices, Geetaji promised, would increase my capacity to be joyful and confident. I certainly could use more of these qualities in my life.

What is fire? I began to wonder. How does it work in nature? If this element was a wise person, what kind of wisdom would it possess?

When something burns, its atoms must be forced apart.
In liquids, the expansion process
is evaporative boiling
and in solids it is pyrolysis.
Under the influence of fire
states transform.

Tapas is a practice mentioned in many of the prominent old yogic texts, including the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Sanskrit word means “heat.” Often translated as “austerity,” tapas involves intense, focused effort to achieve a spiritual goal.

One of my teachers explained that tapas “clears away the dross” from our minds and acts like a magnifying glass in the sun—bringing a great deal of energy to a single point. The power generated can help us break habits or overcome obstacles within.

The Bhagavad Gita states that tapas can be practised in relation to the body, mind and speech. Serenity, silence and honesty of purpose are examples of austerities of the mind given in the Gita (XVII, 16).

Sri Aurobindo describes a fiery spiritual force that we can light in our hearts and all other parts of our being. In his Letters on Yoga, Aurobindo writes that “agni is at once a fire of aspiration, a fire of purification, a fire of Tapasya, a fire of transformation…Agni opens the earth, the physical consciousness, to the Divine Light.”

In the Kundalini system, the symbol for the third level of consciousness contains a Fire Wheel. Swami Radha’s book, Kundalini Yoga for the West, explains that the third chakra is related to emotions, mind, energy, dreams and the sense of sight. This level of consciousness is also closely linked with the power of imagination.

I get the sense that fire is a mover and shaker in the element world. When the yogic texts talk about fire, it comes across as a dynamic force in the mind with great potential to transform.

I get all fired up reading the words of these masters. They make spiritual life sound like alchemy.

Convection currents create
the shape of flames.
On Earth
 in an open environment
fresh air is channeled upward
(hot air rises)
 resulting in flames that lift.
Moving air makes flames dance.

This weekend, I am moving into a place of my own. It is a basement suite with many quirks like saloon doors and no sink in the bathroom. It is also bright, sun-coloured and mine.

Moving into my own apartment reflects a change happening inside me. I am finding out what it is I seek, and mustering up the courage to let it become reality. In order to take steps toward what I want deep down, I have to act outside of habitual ways.

After the conference, I used the enthusiasm I had gained to question myself persistently: What do I seek? What do I want my life to look like? Clarifying the answers was like burning away the chaff to get at what was valuable. I saw that living on my own was important. I knew it would help me, as a young woman, to take responsibility for myself and to find out how I want to live my life.

At the time, I could not see how I would be able to afford an apartment. It took courage simply to accept that, yes, it is possible. The crucial step seemed just to take a mental risk, to be willing to go beyond what was known and comfortable.

Once I knew I wanted my own place, I had to work to find it. Having been told that Vancouver was in a housing crunch, I checked the classified ads almost obsessively for weeks. One day, I was scrambling around town trying to land an apartment, and I stopped for coffee in the neighbourhood where I wanted to live. I noticed just how anxious and tense I had become.

In the process of trying to expand my horizons, I had squeezed my mind tight. I recognized this pattern from my job search. When I finally did get permanent work, it came in a gentle, roundabout way that took effort on my part, but not an anxious struggle.

So I decided to try a new tack, handwriting signs for the community bulletin boards: “SEEKING a 1-bedroom suite in Mount Pleasant.” I relaxed. In a few days, after I had almost forgotten about the signs, I got the call from my landlady-to-be.

There is a wonderful momentum gaining as I find out that I am capable of more than I thought. I have come to think of this force as the fire in my life.

When I was struggling in the Warrior pose, I didn’t really know why I was there or what I was seeking. But the knowledge was right below the surface. As soon as I challenged myself—the thought was like a spark—the innate strength in my body emerged. Instead of seeing myself as a victim of circumstances, I was participating actively in my life.

To me, fire is a symbol for the power I use to clarify what I want and go after it. It was a step for me just to get out and look for an apartment, but I don’t want to live my life trying to force everything. The fiery strength I am discovering is too precious to be wasted on strain, which often doesn’t amount to much.

The amount of heat produced in a fire depends
on the quality of fuel
and how much air is allowed in.
The speed at which
a fire can travel depends
on the materials
available to it.

Since the yoga conference, I have wondered: What is the line between straining and giving myself a healthy shove in the right direction?

The burning sensation in my hips and knees during the first asana classes is certainly not the flame I want to stoke in my life. I had pushed myself for unhealthy reasons—to prove myself and because I was worried about not doing the poses right.

Geetaji challenged us on this level as well. “Why are you here?” she asked. “Do not do the asana for me—do it for yourself!”

My experience of Iyengar Yoga was getting in touch with my desire to know, for myself, what I am capable of. Geetaji called this “essential intelligence,” the knowing from within.

I am living by myself now because I want to expand and explore. Each risk taken brings more confidence. My desire to grow is like a gentle, slow-burning fire. It is becoming a force of its own.

As electrons cool in atoms
that have become hot by fire
light radiates.

As weather on the West Coast shifts from damp to damper, I am cozy in my new place. The heating system is another strange and endearing feature of the apartment. The awkward, natural gas–fueled appliance is mounted halfway up the living room wall. I like the brand name, Valor, and it produces a lovely, permeating warmth.

“Turn it on or off as you wish,” my landlady said when she was first showing me the apartment. “You control the heat.”

In coal fires
and the sun
the hottest flames
glow white.

Juniper Glass writes and works in Vancouver, BC.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life