The arms act, the chest experiences

It’s the annual UK Iyengar Yoga Convention, when hundreds of Iyengar yogis gather together from all over the country, and from abroad, to be taught by a senior Indian teacher. This year we’re in Exeter for three days of being taught by Birjoo Mehta, who studied with BKS Iyengar from his boyhood.

Primarily, the Convention is a chance to learn from those close to the Iyengars and develop our practice. But the Convention is also a chance to get together with like-minded people. It’s an opportunity to catch up with old friends and meet new.

Birjoo’s theme for the Convention is “dharma”. This is often translated as duty. BKS Iyengar in The Tree of Yoga, defines it as  “the science of ethical, social and moral obligatons”. Birjoo said being dharmic is being sustainable; different parts of the body work together to sustain another part. The body is an eco-system.

To illustrate how to apply dharma in our practice, Birjoo sat on a chair and took his hands through the back of it. He stretched into the hands, taking the corners of his shoulders back and shoulder-blades down. He said all of these actions were done for the sake of the chest.

He told us the story of the Brahmins who were told they could eat as much as they wanted so long as they didn’t bend their elbows; so they fed each other. None fed themselves. Their actions were for others. It is the same for the body; we work in one part of the body, for the benefit of another part.

As we didn’t all have chairs, we did the work he had done in the chair, in Tadasana, arms behind us, belt on elbows. We would feel what the right tightness for the belt was through how our chest felt. If it felt ready to burst, that’s how we know what’s enough. Birjoo said: “Students ask, ‘Am I doing it right? Am I doing it enough?’. If they look inside, they will know. They won’t need to ask.”

You are doing the work for the sake of the chest. The chest is the experiencer; the arms and shoulders are the actors. You act/do the action with the hands and shoulders to get the chest open. The chest experiences.

If you have a balloon, then you press on the balloon with hands above and below; the hands feel they are getting nearer together. But what does the chest feel? The chest feels it is expanding.

Don’t think “What is the leg doing, what is the arm doing?”. Look only at that part of the body on which you are focusing – at the moment, the chest.

Bring the consciousness to the collar-bones; touch the breath to the collar-bones.

We did all of the introductory standing poses. Each time we did a pose, we started with the breath/consciousness filling the chest and reaching the collar-bones. We had to not lose it as we went into the pose.

As a contrast, sometimes we did it “how we normally do it” – put foot here, stretch there. When we did this, Birjoo said he could see us working quite aggressively in the ams, for the sake of the stretch in the arms, not thinking about what that does for the part of the body which is experiencing the action of the arms (the chest). Then we repeated the pose, taking our focus back to the chest and how the actions of the limbs and body affected the chest.

In the afternoon session he answered questions and taught some Pranayama, building on the work in the morning, showing us what a dharmic breath was.

After that, we emerged, dazed, into the sunshine to do Sirsasana (headstand) and other poses for some group photos for International yoga Day tomorrow. It was a struggle to emerge from the restfulness achieved in our Pranayama to do Sirsasana – and do it well enough to be on camera!- but it was a fitting end to the first day. I felt part of the yogic ecosystem as we did our Sirsasanas; one part of  a bigger practice that wouldn’t work if each person didn’t do their small part.