Category Archives: Gods and Myths

CHURNING OF THE OCEAN

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One of the most pervasive myths in the Hindu lore is the long and intricate story of the “churning of the ocean.” I have been considering this myth as I have been processing and practicing this last post-election week. Here is a shortened version with the salient details applicable to my current consideration.

The devas (gods) and asuras (demons) were both seeking the nectar of immortality (amrta or soma). To get it, they worked together to churn the ocean. They upended a great mountain, and wrapped a huge snake around it and churned and churned for a very long time.

Eventually a variety of different things emerged, like a cow, an elephant, the goddess Laksmi, and jewels, happily claimed by the churners.

Then as they continued churning, a dark viscous noxious substance started to emerge. It was quite toxic and threatening to the world. They had to call upon the god Shiva to handle it. He held it in his throat, which is why one of his names is Lord Blue Throat (nilakantha). He transmuted the poison in this way and the churning resumed until the amrta emerged.

I have heard this story interpreted in many ways, a favorite is as a metaphor for our practice of yoga, particularly meditation. As we practice, we are churning our own consciousness, from which emerges gifts like centeredness, clarity, and creativity, and eventually more blissful states. But as well, along the way, we must deal with and transmute any poison that resides in our own individual consciousness.

We experience this in our yoga asana practice as discomfort arises physically due to tightness in our bodies or old injuries. We transmute these through conscious breathing and correct and therapeutic alignment such that eventually there is healing. But it may be unpleasant for a while.

And as well in yoga asana and especially meditation, frustration, residue of old patterns, and all kinds of psychic gunk can be churned up. The practice gives a context and methodology within which to transmute these challenges.

As I’ve thought about the story of the churning of the ocean in light of our current political climate, I’ve been thinking of the ocean in this myth representing our collective consciousness, and how we’ve stirred up and unleashed the poison. And the question becomes, who will transmute it? In the story it is Shiva, who is the consummate yogi. Shiva was called upon to handle it, he held and transmuted it.

Many of us have had the privilege and blessing of many years of yoga practice. As yogis we have many tools at our disposal to shift energy and transform our beings. We practice asana, pranayama, meditation, and chanting. We study the scriptures for guidance. And as we deepen our studies and practice, we have the power of transmutation.

The form this takes can vary. On a very practical level, for me it involves staying steadfast in my yoga practices, stabilizing myself in a place of connection to my heart. As a yoga teacher I will continue to aid others in this process, teaching the tools for transformation. As a citizen of this planet, I intend to do whatever I can to acknowledge the poison when I see it, and seek to transmute it by whatever means I have at my disposal.

I hope we can each remember and seriously consider utilizing the gifts we have received through the practice. We begin by acknowledging the poison is there, it has been unleased. Acknowledge as well that the gift of yoga has led to some degree of awareness, that you are awake at this critical time. Are you willing to engage, to work to transmute it in whatever way you have the power to do so?

Feel free to leave a comment regarding how you would like to transmute the toxic energy.

Ganapati’s Ears: Listening and Winnowing

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One of the distinguishing characteristics of the elephant-headed God, Ganesh, or Ganapati, is his ears. They are said to be indicative of his capacity for listening, and as well they resemble winnowing baskets, and therefore the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Our ability to truly listen is fundamental to our paths as yogis and as humans. By “listening” I mean not only hearing with our ears, but accessing all our senses, and honing our ability to perceive accurately, which is tied into the winnowing process.

Think about any of conversations you have, face-to-face or electronically, and consider to what extent you truly listen. If you look closely, you’ll find that most of us are already formulating a response before the other person has completed the articulation of their thought. Often our listening is selective, we hone in on a particular point without hearing the full range of what the person is saying.

For example, I recently received an email with feedback on one of my classes. I immediately began to discount the feedback, pushing it off on the person who had the problem, justifying why I did things the way I did, etc. And I immediately began writing back with those points. But since it was an email, I had the time to first of all, reread the email and really try to understand what was being articulated. Then I started formulating a different, more nuanced response. And instead of hitting send too quickly, I again read the email and formulated several more responses before sending one that expressed appreciation for the feedback and how I would try to improve my teaching. So instead of starting a negative feedback loop, I was able to shift it into a win-win situation.

Now, I know some of you are thinking: well, sometimes it is the other person who is “off” somehow, or incorrect. Or sometimes it is hard to know, how can we figure that out?

Here is where the practice of meditation comes in. Our meditation practice allows us to begin working with our habitual patterns in a variety of ways. Meditation directly affects the old imprints stored inside, such that they become attenuated or burned off. As well, a regular meditation practice allows us to establish connection to, as Patanjali puts it, the Seer: a wiser and clearer part of our self. Having established connection with that part of our self, we can begin to access that wiser self on a moment-by-moment basis to guide us in both our understanding, and responses.

So there is a listening we can cultivate in the other direction: listening within, listening to the Seer. And in time, with practice, we can begin to truly listen and perceive the outside world from this place of deep listening to the Seer.

Nowhere is this more important than when we are facing the challenges: the obstacles and thresholds that are associated with Vigneshvara, the Lord of Obstacles as Ganesh is also known as. In those moments of challenge, or as we cross the threshold into a new domain in our lives, our ability to negotiate all of the input while standing in an awareness of our innermost self will allow us to respond in a refined and nuanced way, and from a place of love that is the essence of who we are.

My sense of the divine is that it is benevolent, and actually wants us to grow and heal, and to serve the world. And as the Lord of Obstacles, Ganesh is that energy of the divine that places exactly the obstacles and thresholds in our path that we need in order to proceed on that path of growth. Yet often when things are challenging, or challenging messages are sent, we try to combat them, or to simply ignore them. So Ganapati’s ears remind us: are we listening to what the divine is offering us?

EXERCISES
For the next week or so, in your conversations, try to truly listen.
– Can you listen and hear the other person before you begin judging or formulating a response?
– Can you create some space to respond from a place of listening and refinement, rather than reacting from you habitual patterns?

Over time, notice the effect that your practice of meditation has on your ability to listen and refine.
– Can you begin to discern the habitual patterns that cause you to want to react before you’ve had the opportunity to really listen and refine?
– Is there a shortening of the time it takes to create a refined response to a situation?

Ganesh at the Threshold of a New Year

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A beautiful wooden Ganesh came into my possession over the holidays, and paired with the fact that he is the Lord of Thresholds and Beginnings, he’s been on my mind as we enter this New Year.

Ganapati has many names, among them Vigneshvara. Vigna means obstacle, and Ishvara is Lord, and many praise him as the Remover of Obstacles. But more literally he is the Lord OF Obstacles. I’ve been thinking about this a bit as I review my last year and consider my intentions for the coming year. I’ve been contemplating how I work with obstacles, and how Vigneshvara can support me.

When I was living in India for a short time, one day I noticed the school children crowding around to pay homage to Ganesh at one of his shrines. I was curious as to what was going on and was informed that it was exam time, and the children were seeking support on their exams. This is an example of how Ganesh is often approached: as a good luck charm.

On New Year’s day I found myself chanting the Ganapati Atharvashirsha Upanishad, in honor of the new Year and all I would face this coming year. Wouldn’t it be nice if Ganapati just cleared the path for me like some kind of good luck charm, removing any obstacles that might block my desires from coming into fruition? We all hope for smooth sailing as we negotiate our lives, but when I invoke Ganapati, I understand it is not simply a transactional prayer, but has more layers of profound meaning.

When I invoke Vigneshvara, I am calling upon a particular quality, or set of qualities, that he exemplifies. As the Lord of Obstacles, Ganapati is that energy that supports me in negotiating the inevitable challenges that arise in my life.

In fact, could it be that the Lord of Obstacles is that which creates or places the very obstacles that need to be experienced? Challenges can be some of the best things to happen in our life, though in the moment we may not feel that way. In this last year, I experienced unexpected challenges in some of my relationships that caused me to look deep within myself, which served to shift some of my behavioral patterns, and look carefully at my responsibility in creating challenges. It also instigated some changes in how I communicate and how I commit my time.

You likely have heard the expression “when one door closes, another opens.” And what is a door, but an obstacle, closing off one direction, so another can be taken? Sometimes Ganesh shows up as that extreme occurrence when we have no choice but to radically change direction. And he is that energy that helps us negotiate obstacles in the most benevolent way.

For as the names Ganapati and Ganesh suggest, he is the Lord of the Ganas, of all the categories or terms of existence. When our desires are misaligned, when they are not serving the highest, Ganapati arranges the terms of our existence such that a more auspicious arrangement in encouraged.

And ultimately, Ganesh is that quality of the divine we invoke to encourage us to seek that alignment such that our desires reflect divine will. For when our actions emerge from the highest desire to align, Ganesh will then be the remover of obstacles.

CONTEMPALTIONS

Consider the last period of your life and the obstacles you have encountered. What have you learned from them?

What strategies do you use to more gracefully negotiate the inevitable obstacles that arise in your life?

How do you align with your highest desires?

Hanuman and Jambavan

This year I was asked to teach at the Hanuman Festival in Boulder with an old friend of mine. It lead me to reflect on which stories of Hanuman seemed most appropriate for this situation, and I settled upon one related to friendship. It was a delight to contemplate the teachings in light of the evolution of the relationship with my friend, and relationships in general.  It was such an honor to teach the class. Thanks to the Hanuman Festival and to all of you who showed up in support!

By way of a brief background to the friendship story, there are many stories of Hanuman. In his childhood and youth, he was a precocious monkey who sometimes acted in ways that were mischievous and even dangerous.  On one such occasion he was knocked unconscious by Indra, which upset his father Vayu, the wind, who withdrew the prana from the world. To appease Vayu and avoid suffocation, the Gods bestowed upon Hanuman a number of yogic powers.

Hanuman is often associated with bhakti yoga, or love of the divine, and he figures prominently in the great Indian epic, the Ramayana, in which he is devoted to his Beloved Rama and Sita. Famously, he leaps from India to Lanka to save Sita from the demon Ravana, hence the yoga posture bearing his name is Hanumanasana (also known as the splits). As the story goes, the vanaras were quite consternated on the shores of India as to how or who had the ability to traverse the ocean. It took Jambavan, a great friend of Hanuman’s, to remind him of his great powers and ability to conquer the task. Jambuvan tell Hanuman his life story and reminds him of his great powers. Hanuman then gathers up his power to make the leap, and thereby reunite Ram and Sita.

This is a wonderful teaching about how as friends in community we can all encourage each other and ourselves to bring our gifts forward. I remembered how my friend had once approached me wanting to start a yoga studio with me as the director.  I was astounded that anyone would see me capable of such a thing. It was truly a turning point in my life, as I stepped into becoming a leader in the community. It lead me tomentoring many teachers, including my friend.  Douglas Brooks has taught: you are every character in the story.  So it is that my friend was Jambavan to my Hanuman by suggesting I take a leadership role. I then became Jambavan to her Hanuman as I encouraged her in her teaching career.

As I considered these teachings further, I thought of other relationships I’d been in, and how they lead to further growth in my life  Sometimes we need someone else to remind us of our greatness, and sometimes our friends simply show up to support us in our work, like Hanuman does repeatedly in the Ramayana. Other times our friends have the difficult task of reminding us when we’re out of alignment and behaving badly, as the Gods did in Hanuman’s youth. This latter has been among the best help I have received from my friends, even though usually it was the hardest help to receive.

Each of us is blessed with particular assets, be they physical, artistic, scientific, or simply being a good parent or friend, among many other possibilities. Our community and the larger world benefits from each of us remembering our gifts and making our unique contribution. Our friends, family, teachers, and the process of yoga itself serve to remind us of our own greatness. Like Jambavan, may we each encourage the greatness of others, reminding them of their beauty, especially when they’ve forgotten. And, like Hanuman, may we remember our own greatness, and harness our gifts in service of the divine.

Teachings of Hanuman: Using the Skillful Approach

In one of the many stories about Hanuman, the hungry young monkey spied what looked like a juicy red fruit and leapt into the sky to grab it. Since it was actually the sun, he had to be stopped, and in doing so Hanuman was injured. There are many teachings from this story, but one of the more subtle ones is that Hanuman learns that rash behavior has consequences and that one must exercise skillful means in pursuit of one’s desires.

Hanuman’s greatest desire is to be in service of the divine, particularly Rama, and as the story above exemplifies, in his childhood and youth he learns he must be skillful in applying  his substantial power.  He displays this ability on several occasions in the great Indian epic in which he figures prominently, the Ramayana, helping Rama recover his consort Sita, who has been abducted by the evil demon Ravana.

When Hanuman discovers where Sita has been held captive, he finds her distressed and considering suicide. He sits in a tree, observing.  He knows he must act quickly, yet he pauses to consider carefully how best to approach. “After deep deliberation, Hanuman decided on the safest and wisest course! Softly, sweetly, clearly and in cultured accents, he narrated the story of Rama.”* Sita, though initially fearful of the monkey, is delighted by his words, and they connect through further conversation.

You may know of occasions in your life when you were more or less skillful in different situations, even when your desire is pure. I had a desire to address racial tensions, and to do so I began graduate school at a Midwestern university.  I was 21 years of age, feeling a bit rebellious, and looked like the California Deadhead hippie I was. I found that both the faculty and other graduate students had trouble taking me seriously, so much so, that I ended up leaving after a year.  I transferred to a different graduate school and decided to take another approach, presenting myself more conservatively and as a serious student, and I found I was accepted much more readily and ranked at the top of my class. Eventually it didn’t matter if I wore my blazer or my tie-dyes, as I had made the connection successfully, and was able to publish several papers on group relations in prestigious scholarly journals.

This isn’t a teaching about changing yourself in order to please others. It is about finding your heart’s desire and being skillful about your pursuit of that desire.  If you follow your desire to its core, you may find that ultimately you want to be of service in some way, that you have your own unique gift for the world. And, in fact, each of us already changes into different ways of being in our lives as we approach the roles of employee, boss, teacher, student, spouse, brother or sister, child, parent, etc.  In each of these roles, to be of the most service, we must be skillful in finding a way to connect.

PRACTICE

–    As you practice yoga asana, pick some particular alignment principle to focus on, something the teacher is emphasizing or that you need to work on.  Notice what you do to skillfully apply that principle as you move through the variously shaped poses.
–    Write in your journal: “my heart’s desire is…..”.  Remember what is most important to you. Come back to that desire again and again.
–    Make a list of the different roles you have in your life.  How is your heart’s desire reflected in each? Is there nuance? Does remembering your heart’s desire help?  Can you think of more skillful ways to approach some of these relationships?
–    When Hanuman finds Sita, he pauses to watch and contemplate the right approach. Can you think of instances in your life when this could be useful? Try it out in some difficult situation.
–    Consider and journal about situations in your life when you were more or less skillful.  How could you have been more skillful when you weren’t? Allow yourself to learn from your mistakes.
–    If you have any particularly sticky relationships or situations in your life right now, contemplate and journal: a) what is your desire in this situation, and b) how might you most skillfully move in that direction.

*The quote is from Swami Venkatesananda’s version of the Ramayana of Valmiki.  Thanks to Douglas Brooks for his telling of these stories.