Parveen Nair: Advanced asana is when the mind is resolved
Parveen Nair is Iyengar yoga teacher from Malaysia who currently teaches in Rishikesh. Although he has started giving classes in Rishikesh quite recently, he has already become one of the favorite yoga teachers among local people and international students. Perhaps it's the rare combination of deep knowledge on body mechanics and attention to detail, so characteristic to Iyengar style, with philosophical insights and gentle attitude toward his students that makes Parveen Nair a really outstanding teacher. TopYogis asked Parveen Nair to share the secrets of his method.
TopYogis: Parveen Ji, your class was very interesting to me. From my experience, you’re the first Iyengar teacher that I practiced with, who actually talks about philosophical aspects of yoga, and meditational aspects as well: mental work, integration of body, mind and breath. This seems to me not common in Iyengar class. Is it your Iyengar teacher background, or is it something else? What is your background in yoga?
Parveen Nair: Well, when it comes to the asana practice, my entire grammar on asana is something that I have derived from Iyengar yoga. That intelligence is from the Guruji, BKS Iyengar, who has injected that aspect of precision, alignment, timing. All that is one aspect that I have taken into my practice and understanding. Then, of course, I’ve explored two different aspects of yoga - not only asana. Of course, Guruji himself has penetrated these subjects through the asana - that’s the beauty. And it is through the asana that he has developed the understanding of the integration of body, mind towards a meditation. For me, I got that knowledge from him, my interest continued further to practice meditation not only in asana subject, but also a seated meditation.
For Guruji, meditation is in the asana itself. He would develop a sense of meditative mind, when the mind is one-pointed, fixed. It is an integration of the mind from the composition of the asana, which takes you towards meditation.
That is the dynamic aspect. And also I wanted to explore a passive aspect of meditation, where I had a chance to understand the teachings of Ramana Maharishi. Ramana Maharishi was a sage who passed away in 1950. What I derived from reading his books and understanding what the self is and how to contemplate upon the self.
See, the underlying is, yoga is the practice, the instrument. What we want is to remove suffering from life. We want to remove suffering, and everybody wants to feel good. The process is yoga: one process is asana, one process if pranayama, one process is meditation. In the end, we want to remove suffering from our lives so that we can feel good.
So I would say that I am still experimenting and finding out. Taking these treasures that all these sages and teachers have given, and from there I’m trying to understand who am I first, and from that reflection as well what I am giving my students, what I have integrated. I am very sure that in five years it will evolve, my teaching will evolve. And in another five years, my teaching will evolve. I can see it’s only this one box. It definitely will evolve. And I’m keeping my mind open for it.
TopYogis: That’s very outstanding. Because many teachers think, now they are teachers, and they get stuck in their position, in what they already know. It is a danger for all of us when we think that we’ve learned something, and then we stop learning.
Parveen Nair: Yes, that is dangerous, definitely. The mind requires progress. They (many people) want to fit the mind in a box.
Try to avoid any kind of rigid aspect of life. Let life mold you rather than you sit in the box. And yoga is so beautiful, there are so many shades there, flavors of yoga, and every flavor of yoga has some beauty to inject into the practice. So alignment precision is one aspect of yoga.
TopYogis: So, what is the goal of yoga practice for you?
Parveen Nair: Rather than saying “my goal of my practice” I would rather want to represent the teachings of the sages. I adore the sages. Continuously my mind is always reading and trying to understand what the sages have to give. What they have given many thousands of years ago is still relevant today. Maybe the way we present it is modern, but the subject is relevant in a traditional way. What I want to share is what they want to share.
That yoga is to bring the clarity to the mind. The process of bringing the clarity to the mind - we integrate the body which is the gross, to the subtle, the mind and the intelligence. By bringing this integration, we get clarity in the mind, so that we’re able to reflect and see the world as it is.
That is what I’m trying to present, and I wouldn’t say “I”, I’m representing what the sages are representing.
TopYogis: Can you tell us, do you have your own practice?
Parveen Nair: My daily practice? Definitely. Daily asana and pranayama practice, and I do my japas in the evenings. I sit because I must admit that I teach a bit too much, and I try to take some time off. Every time I try to take some time off, the universe pulls me back into the teaching. Maybe the age is that to teach right now. I have a great taste to sit and do japa meditation. That is my interest - to learn, always remain as a student of the sages. That is my main interest. So I try to sit in the evening for one hour doing my japa and meditating. If I can, if my mind permits me to sit, I will sit, and rejoice in my true nature.
TopYogis: How do you try to incorporate the practice of yoga into your daily activities that are not connected to teaching, for example, but are just simple things that we do in a daily life?
Parveen Nair: One thing that dawned on me from the years of practice in Iyengar yoga tradition and in the tradition of Ramana Maharishi of self-inquiry, is to take one thing at a time. Our mind is constantly bouncing to the past and the future, but naturally, even the days are presented to us - one day at a time comes to us. So at the same time, what I learned from Guruji BKS Iyengar is to take one step at a time.
Do one thing at a time. You may not be doing a big asana, but you’re correcting one part. One part at a time. And that value I’ve taken in my life: to take one hour at a time, one moment at a time, one day at a time so that I’m not rushing.
For me personally, I feel sometimes in my life I’m rushing things: “Oh, what will happen tomorrow? I did not do that, I did not do this”. I am not procrastinating, but that worry, that worry has reduced in my life immensely through the practice because that is what I feel Guruji and many other teachers had given me: to take life one step at a time. And yoga practices, asana practice specifically, has given me the patience to take one thing at a time. Gradually. Don’t rush. You have all the time. You have the time. You’re precise. You know exactly where you’re keeping your hands, you know exactly where you’re extending, where you are shortening. So the mind will also move with that velocity, the mind will gracefully move as I’m aging so I’m gracefully aging into that process. Maturity.
TopYogis: Did you have situations in your life when you sustained injuries related to that yoga practice?
Parveen Nair: Now I must say that it’s not that yoga, because I had a condition, I had bronchial asthma, very bad. Sinusitis. And this was removed completely by the practice of yoga. And I found back a new body, a new Praveen, a new healthy mindset. But as I was practicing, of course, due to my rushing in the practice, I wanted to achieve Padmasana or some particular asana, I must admit I have torn my meniscus in trying to do that. But that is something that I take responsibility for myself. For being a bit “vata” (wind energy), rajasic, wanting to achieve something. That happened maybe ten-twelve years ago. Now, that injury did not stop me. Rather it made me become more intelligent and more careful in working with my body. So that break that life represented me, gave me a little bit more intelligence to take the practice gracefully. So I take it as a blessing in disguise. Definitely.
TopYogis: For how long have you been teaching yoga?
Parveen Nair: Since 2004 I’ve been teaching yoga. I started in a Shivananda tradition first. And then, in 2005 I met BKS Iyengar. Actually, my first teacher was Karin O’Bannon in the Iyengar tradition, and she introduced me to BKS Iyengar, and I continued the practice until 2014, when Guruji left his body.
TopYogis: Since your beginning of yoga practice, has your approach to the practice and the teaching changed?
Parveen Nair: Oh, absolutely! Something that dawned on me is I came to the mat for one reason: to remove asthma, sinusitis. Today - nothing.
My main goal now is how I can sit and meditate, and reflect in my own nature. To rejoice in my own nature. Of course, the world is constantly presenting me with so much beauty, but there’s a beauty within me that I will have to discover. So there’s no more asthma now.
TopYogis: As a yoga teacher, do you find it challenging when people from all over the world come to your class, each one with different experiences and challenges and expectations. They come to your class and you’re supposed to teach them. How do you manage to give them things to learn making sure that they will not do too much or try to do things that they are not ready for? Because some of the things that we do in yoga need time and preparation.
Parveen Nair: See, there are two aspects in this. In the older tradition, which is the Gurukul system, you live with the teacher for a long period of time. You’re not only responsible for absorbing the practice, but the mannerism of the teacher, because the teacher is continuously representing the subject in his daily life. So you look at the teacher, they way that the teacher behaves in his daily life, and then the teaching, and then the practice. So this system requires a few years for the student to mature, and then come out as a practitioner, and therefore later on, at the age of 35-40 years old, maybe mature into a teacher.
My teacher told me one: only teach after 40. Then only you will be sufficiently mature to present the subject. But nowadays, in a modern setup, there’s a little bit of a rush, wanting things fast, which has its pluses and minuses. The minus is, trying to achieve something which requires a long period of time, it’s a relationship. It requires a long period of time. OK, you come, you do 200 hours teacher training course, but really you have to understand that in 200 hours this science, which is so vast and deep, cannot be absorbed. That maturity the teacher and student require to understand. But, certain values on a surface level we can understand, the student can take back. But it requires some maturity, definitely.
So, it is a challenge. But the responsibility of a teacher when he comes to the class of beginner’s level, a general class, is to know how to manage the beginner student. And the students that are highly mature will be able to manage themselves, they will be able to take themselves deeper. Now, sometimes the class that is mixed has its good values, because the weaker students will be able to see the stronger students, they have a stronger energy to lift (the beginning students) up. But at the same time that shouldn’t weaken. For instance, if the class was too fast, then the beginning students could not pick up. So it is essential to have different levels of classes, progressively. Like how a building comes up? From a foundation. Progressive structure, cement, and everything will come. In the same way, this subject (yoga) needs to be dealt with. It cannot be dealt with like making fried noodles. It cannot be presented that way and it should not be presented that way. This I’m telling you after some years. I was also like that, trying to get things fast and now I have understood: the subject requires time and patience and maturity. Maturity means looking at our objects from all views. Every angle. As a father looks at that situation, as a wife looks, as a son looks. From every angle look at one situation. It is called maturity. Then the practice will grow.
TopYogis: So, maybe Rishikesh needs more courses for beginners? Because people come only for teacher trainings now.
Parveen Nair: Of course. See, Rishikesh is catering… If you ask me, in 2005 there were barely any teacher trainings. 2006, 2007. I think, Yoga Alliance was created in 2004, if I’m not mistaken. Maybe 2004 or 2005.
Later on, it became famous, and that idea, the concept came from Yoga Alliance - 200 hours, 300 hours, 500 hours. So the teachers here are selling that concept. But that is not yoga. They’re selling a concept in that packaging. But that is not yoga. Yoga is that when you stay with your teacher for a long time. That knowledge, it requires years and years of practice.
TopYogis: What is your perspective on some asanas in yoga, for example, headstand? In the West, some people discovered all kinds of difficulties with that pose because frequently they are not prepared for headstand. People may be much heavier or have weak necks, and even with props, this pose may be difficult for them. What is your idea about introducing such asanas in drop-in classes?
Asanas are not contortions. Asanas are stances that allow you to penetrate the mind so that the mind is ready for a meditative practice - Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. Penetration. So, therefore, whether it is Shirshasana, whether it is Addho Mukkha Svanasana, or as simple as Balasana, whichever asana you take, it should penetrate the mind.
So when we say that this asana is simple, this asana is difficult, this asana is dangerous, that is certain preparation which is required. So putting a person up into a challenging - I wouldn’t say a dangerous - pose, life itself is continuously dangerous. It is presenting its danger in different levels. I would say it’s challenging to do a Shirshasana for a person who’s not prepared. Therefore, preparation is required. When the proper preparation is required with an understanding of dynamics of the body, therefore, when the application is done, then the student comes up in Shirshasana. Of course, there must be a preparation in the practice. And then they will understand.
Like I was teaching yesterday: first, you spread the fingers, then ground the thumb, then move the shoulders away from ears. Progressively I give one thing at a time. Now, put this all together. Now, what happens to the arm? So, progressive education. The asana should be educated to the student. Like we teach our children. Like that we have to educate, how to keep your arms, how to lift the shoulders. Now, if somebody has a condition with a neck and the shoulders, then you do different methods. BKS Iyengar has given different methods: hanging from the ropes, and also you get the benefits of doing the asana; using two chairs while going upside down.
But what is most important is that asana should eventually penetrate the mind, then there is an integration. That is important. Otherwise, we keep on looking for advanced classes. We want to do advanced asana. Advanced here is when the mind is resolved. Am I able to keep my mind with me? Otherwise, I’m continuously looking for something more and more, twisting the body. And there is going to be injury, inevitably.
TopYogis: So, do you give headstand in drop-in classes?
Parveen Nair: I also give handstand in drop-in classes. But I prepare the students. I tell them. Now, those who absolutely have no experience, they don’t know what I’m talking about, you people do these (asanas), these are for you. Prepare first the ability and the strength for you to do this, and the others, you do the pose. I break the class, and I’m able to manage it. So some division is required, class management.
TopYogis: What is your opinion of teachers adjusting students in an intense way? Sometimes we hear situations where teachers are putting their body weight on a student in a forward bend, things like this.
Parveen Nair: See, before adjusting a student, there must be a relationship build in between a teacher and a student, which is trust. I must know the student’s body. The student must be also aware of the teacher’s style of adjustment. So, when you touch someone, they must know how to flow along, not fighting the adjustment. For that integration to happen, it requires time. So you must be practicing with that student or teacher for some period of time so that that can happen. So a safe space is required for adjustment to happen. Aggressive adjustment is not required. I understand that a verbal instruction is very essential. Now, sometimes when you adjust a student verbally, if they cannot understand, then you ask them: “Can I adjust you?” Then an adjustment is a direction. It is not like a massage. In massage, you’re pushing people into the position. But I feel, this is my approach, that I give direction to the student. I’m not pushing them into the pose. You find out how you go into the pose, and I’m telling you, this is the way. Now, if you require a little bit of a nudge in a safe space, I’m gonna nudge you a little bit, I’m gonna push you a little bit. Now, how do you feel? Now, let’s do this, and then go a little deeper.
So, there is a respectful space between a teacher and a student. Again I’m saying that asana is “by the way”, the mind has to be penetrated. That is most important.
TopYogis: If say a student has only fifteen minutes to practice yoga daily, what would you recommend them to do?
To find more time, no?
Parveen Nair: That is exactly my answer, but sometimes we don’t have that much time in life. Now, if it is a beginner student, we can do a few standing asanas. If you’re slightly matured in your practice, inversions are very important in our daily practice. It reverses the flow of the body back into the brain and the glands. So again, if you’re a beginner, do some standing asanas like Vrikshasana, Trikonasana, Parshvakonasana. All standing asanas are the gateways to the spine. And it’s very important to keep the spinal column straight in pranayama and in meditation. The same thing, once they are slightly matured, they can add. And mind you, in fifteen minutes, they will get the taste. And then, they will increase to half an hour. Then the taste will come, they increase, and then they will go for teacher’s training. The taste has to increase. But what I really hope that all the students will be able to come to an understanding that they don’t put the breaks in pranayama, they don’t put the breaks in asana practice - stop. They go deeper into pranayama, they go deeper into Pratyahara, then into the meditation, then into the subject’s Samadhi. You can! It is possible!
The reason is, we are playing with the body too long. Hanging from here, hanging from there, picking some there. You’re playing with the body too much now. The body must be used to penetrate the mind. The challenge is that we are trying to cure the mind of not knowing what is my true nature. But here, we are playing with the body. Continuously playing with the body - twisting, turning, twisting, turning.
TopYogis: That’s exactly what we noticed in some teachers, that they are focused too much on alignment, for example, and in this focus, also students think that the whole point (of yoga) is to get this form, to get this body to certain position, to certain ability, and sometimes it slips from their attention that there are some deeper levels of yoga to be discovered. Which is the purpose.
Parveen Nair: The process gets stagnated. You are penetrating, but you are stopping in the asana.
You have to go further now. You have to go deeper. And deeper here means progressing from asana to pranayama, then from that you blossom into pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, and then going deeper and deeper and deeper. Otherwise, we get stuck. And it’s very easy to get stuck, because the body is tangible, something gross, and we want to feel good constantly.
So every time I want to feel good, what should I do? Stand on my head - what is it? There is a limit. How much of sugar can you take?
TopYogis: So do you think that a student who has some challenges in his body, for example, he cannot do a certain pose, can he be considered still a mature yoga practitioner because of some other aspects of his practice?
Absolutely! If the mind is resolved, it doesn’t matter. If that mind is able to remain calm in all situations, that is yoga. “Samatvam yoga ucyate”. The mind which is in equilibrium. Just that - resolved. Nothing can shake me. Resolved. Not out of ego, but because I am resolved in my life. I know what is permanent and impermanent. What is real and what is unreal, I know in my life. So I am resolved. Not because I want to or I don’t want to react. Because I am resolved.
If you see the picture of Ramana Maharishi sitting like that. One side of the spine is dropping. If you look at the alignment, then you say the alignment of the spine is wrong. Yes, he’s sitting like that, slouching. But he may be slouching his spine, not erect keeping the head in line, but his mind is resolved, his mind is reflecting the inner self. Therefore, that mind is mature. That is yoga. But I’m not saying that preparation is required. Certain students require to go from that preparation. They require to go step by step.
TopYogis: Because it’s difficult to go to 10-days retreat like Vipassana and just work with the mind for 10 days. Some people want some tangible work with the body to lead them slowly.
Parveen Nair: Yes! The mind itself has many textures. The gross mind which is the body, the pranic mind which is the breath, then the subtle mind, then the intelligence. The mind itself has many flavors, so we have to deal with the gross mind first. There is intelligence in the fingers, there is intelligence in this wrist. All this intelligence you have to deal with first, and then, when you have to sit. Sage Vyasa has given all the sitting in Padmasana, Virasana. All these asanas, to have the ability to sit in these asanas, asana practice is required. We require that flexibility, elasticity in the body.
But we shouldn’t say that only if we have an elastic body, therefore can we penetrate the mind. That is not the truth.
TopYogis: It is just one of the angles from which you can access.
Parveen Nair: Yes, you can access the mind through the body, but there are some who can access, penetrate the mind directly. It’s possible. Many sages, they are not sitting straight. In different positions they are sitting. But absolutely a blessing to this world. They become a blessing to this world. Otherwise, you can do all asanas and you’re a nuisance.
TopYogis: Yes, you can just be good at doing asanas, and that’s it.
Parveen Nair: That’s it. Outside. We don’t know how to deal with the world.
TopYogis: It’s very nice that you have this soft manner of teaching class. Some Iyengar teachers are very strict.
Parveen Nair: I don’t know. Maybe life has presented me, or I looked for different values in the practice itself. I keep on questioning myself: “Do I need to do this to myself?” Because I was doing that before. I was very sharp. And then I found that with the sharpness I was hitting my own self. Too rigid. I was rigid actually on myself. Why are they not getting? And they I understood: “Hey, they need time. They need maturity”.
And I found that love, that with the love you teach, and they will understand. With love. They are not understanding - it’s OK. With love, it will come. At least, I feel like that. Cause I want to be loved in my life. The same thing everybody wants in their life.
TopYogis: Thank you so much.
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