How can stories of Hindu deities enrich a yoga practice? I wrote this blog post to accompany a two-hour workshop I gave to Hilltop Yoga teachers on May 15, 2011. But it’s meant to serve as a stand-alone post — so whether or not you were part of the workshop, I hope you enjoy the post and share your thoughts by commenting below or on the YogaRose.net Facebook page. I plan on doing future posts that take a look at the stories of individual deities, including Hanuman, the monkey king. I had thought about including Hanuman in this post, but decided, man, he needs a blog post all to himself!
Dancing with the Deities
In this workshop, we will explore some of the stories behind the postures that we have encountered so many times in our practice. We know natarajasana as dancer’s pose — but who was Nataraja, and what did his dance signify? Why do we honor Hanuman — the monkey king — by searching for a split? Through stories, we may find that we can spark a sacred energy deep within us. Through myths, perhaps we find a new way to connect our presence in practice to the boundlessness of ancient tradition.
Choreographing the dance
I knew long before I finished the classroom portion (so to speak) of Hilltop Yoga’s 500-hour teacher training program last fall that I wanted my workshop to be on the myths that can transform any yoga practice into a larger-than-life story. (Hilaire Lockwood, owner of Hilltop Yoga in Lansing, Mich., has made it a requirement for 500-hour teachers to give a two-hour workshop to fellow teachers and teacher trainees. I haven’t heard of other programs that require this, and I think it’s a great component of the program.) I’ve long been fascinated by stories and narratives — so much so that I chose to pursue a career as a daily newspaper reporter when I finished graduate school.
Some people become journalists because they have aspirations to write the next great American novel or become a published poet, and they choose a day job that will at least let them write for a living. I did not fall into that category. One of the few things I’ve known about myself since I was young was that what fascinated me most was not what could come out of my imagination, but the true stories all around — the kinds of stories that prompt you to say, “You can’t make this stuff up.” So I went into journalism to discover other people’s stories — whether inspirational, tragic or plain old strange — and share those stories through the written word.
Over the years, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the incredibly rich stories of Hindu deities. I would often find myself in a posture and wonder, “Why is this pose named after the sage Marichi? What did he do that was so cool?” The more I’ve read about these gods and demigods, these humans and animals, the more intrigued I’ve become. Like with any good myth, these ancient tales hold the power to teach us a lot about our own strengths and weaknesses, fantasies and foibles.
I’m writing this blog post — and giving my teachers’ workshop — not as an expert. Far from it. I am coming from this as a fellow explorer. I want to you tell you what I know (which, in the scheme of things, is not much at all) and who told me, so that if a curiosity is sparked in you, you can start that journey yourself and begin to explore.
Studying the dance
One of my favorite parts of the two-week Ashtanga primary series teacher training at the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Carlsbad, Calif. was story time. You take a Mysore Ashtanga class in the morning, perhaps assisting a second class, and then take lunch. After lunch, when everyone was still digesting and taking pulls from their coffee cups to try to stave off that desire for an afternoon nap, Tim Miller would tell stories from the Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana and more modern sources as well. We’d lie down, get comfortable, and enjoy story time like we were in kindergarten again.
But these tales were not for the innocent or faint of heart. Gods and demos would be banished, killed, brought back in other form (or at least with a new head, as in the case with Daksha, who returns to life with a goat’s head. Read more about that story in the chapter on virabhadrasana in Myths of the Asana, described below.). If ever there were epic soap operas, these were it. The Mahabharata is said to be three times longer than the Bible. To make matters more confusing, where in soap operas you might find out someone has a twin, in these tales, gods all seem to have hundreds, if not more, incarnations. How can anyone possible keep up? (Maybe there’s an app for that now?)
Over the past few years, some excellent books and CDs have been published and produced that weave these tales. Here are some of the ones I recommend. (You can buy all of these using your Amazon.com account through the YogaRose.net Bookshop and Boutique.)
Stories about the deities
Myths of the Asanas: The Stories at the Heart of the Yoga Tradition
Alanna Kaivalya and Arjuna van der Kooij
This is an outstanding book that came out last year. It’s beautifuly told, beautifully put together, and is about as relevant as it gets, in terms of how the authors bring everything back to the modern Western lifestyle. I remember one day last year when I had just had a horrible, soul-sucking day. I went home, started crying and pulled this book off the shelf. I started reading these stories about gods and mortals in binds far worse than I could imagine, and yet had managed to find redemption and moved on. It was the most calming and reassuring book I could have opened that day. (In addition to the paperback copy, this book is also available as a Kindle ebook.)
The Little Book of Hindu Deities
I picked up this little gem from Moksha Yoga in Chicago when I attended a workshop with Ashtanga master Lino Miele. The author describes himself as an “ABCD (American-born confused Desi (Indian),” even though he was born in the United Kingdom. He grew up in the United States disinterested in his parents’ culture, but was drawn to these stories after becoming an animator at Pixar. Searching for a way to tell these tales while being respectful, Patel made a connection with “Sanrio’s ultracute Hello Kitty designs and thought, ‘Well, there’s a style no one could be offended by.” The result is a handy guide to deities, with bonus sections that provide overviews of Hindu epics, the Hindu chronology of creation and the nine planets. It looks like a book for children, but looks can be deceiving. Publishers Weekly says the book is most popular with teens and 20-somethings.
Ashtanga Yoga The Intermediate Series: Mythology, Anatomy and Practice
The best way I can describe Gregor Maehle’s excellent books on Ashtanga yoga is “heady.” He is thorough, intellectual and esoteric — but without being inaccessible. I picked up his first book on Ashtanga primary series and his newest book on second series for the anatomy details. But the true gift in Maehle’s intermediate series book, in my opinion, is the section on mythology. A table in this book, for example, lists four categories of postures (lifeless forms, animals, human forms, divine forms), along with the dominant guna of those sets of postures (whether tamas, rajas or sattva) and the asanas in the Ashtanga second series that fall into each category. You will get insights from this book you won’t find anywhere else — starting with pasasana, the first posture in second series, and one which we typically hear of as “noose posture.” Maehle picks up where everyone else would stop: “Noose refers here to the posture of the arms, which are thrown like a noose around the legs. Pasha is also one of the thousand names of the Lord Shiva, who is also called Pashaye, Lord with the noose.” The book is gorgeously annotated. And have I mentioned it’s thorough? (In addition to the paperback copy, this book is also available as a Kindle ebook.)
Elephant Power, centered around stories of Ganesh, is actually a really fun way to get to know the stories of some of the most famous deities. MC Yogi, whose father initially got him into Ashtanga yoga when he was 18, grew up in northern California listening to Beastie Boys and Run DMC. He has a unique hip-hop style, and he knows his mythical tales. I was pretty incredulous when I first heard about MC Yogi — I can be a total music snob, and I admit it — but he is the real deal. He’s also got some heavy hitters in the kirtan world featured on this album, including Bhagavan Das, Krishna Das, Sharon Gannon, and Jai Uttal. See some lyrics and listen to samples.
Flow of Grace
Flow of Grace, which came out in 2007, is a book and a set of two CDs. Flow of Grace would have to be a large part of a blog post on Hanuman, but the short version might be best described by Krishna Das’ website: “Krishna Das has been singing the Hanuman Chalisa for over thirty years, and on his newest CD, Flow of Grace, he takes us deep into the heart of this powerful prayer to Hanuman, the embodiment of devotion, service, strength, and compassion.” If you’ve never heard the Hanuman Chalisa, you can listen to the samples found online, but I can tell you from experience that you won’t feel the power of the chalisa until you are sitting in a room full of people chanting it — perhaps with someone playing a harmonium. Pick Flow of Grace up to start to understand why the great monkey king is so revered.
The epic tales
The Little Book of Hindu Deities offers this pithy overview of Hindu epics:
The two great Hindu epics are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The Mahabharata is a sprawling history of India’s ancient dynasties’ struggle with one another for land and power. It also explains most of Hinduism’s major gods and goddesses. It has been said that everything worth knowing is found within its pages, including the stand-alone portion called the Bhagavad Gita. The Ramayana is more intimate in its scope, primarily following Rama and his small band of devotees in their quest to rescue his wife, Sita. These sacred texts are the cultural foundation of India and the Hindu mythology.
If you have the time and the interest, it would be amazing to dig into the juiciness of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. I would love to, but I think I’m being realistic in saying that I don’t see myself getting through these texts in this lifetime. (As it stands now, I already don’t have time to read what I want to read.) I do, however, hope to find time this year to reread the Bhagavad Gita. I had to read the Bhagavad Gita as a freshman in college, and it’ll be a different book now that I’ll be looking at it from an Ashtanga yoga perspective.
Ramayana: Divine Loophole
I literally just saw this book when finding links for the book of Patel’s that I do have, The Little Book of Hindu Deities (description in the section above). On the strength of that book, I’m going to recommend this book, sight unseen. Here’s the Amazon.com review: “Teeming with powerful deities, love-struck monsters, flying monkey gods, magic weapons, demon armies, and divine love, Ramayana tells the story of Rama, a god-turned-prince, and his quest to rescue his wife Sita after she is kidnapped by a demon king. This illustrated tale features over 100 colorful full-spread illustrations, a detailed pictorial glossary of the cast of characters who make up the epic tale, and sketches of the work in progress. From princesses in peril to gripping battles, scheming royals, and hordes of bloodthirsty demons, Ramayana is the ultimate adventure story presented with an unforgettably modern touch.” I’m going to pick this book up soon — can’t wait to see how it unfolds.
>>If you are so inclined, you can buy all of these using your own Amazon.com account through the YogaRose.net Bookshop and Boutique.
A closer look at Nataraja
The photo at the top of this post is of Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. Nataraja is yet another incarnation of Shiva. Perhaps more than any other deity, Shiva is the one I am most enthralled by — his ashen face, matted hair, his proclivity to disappear to the mountains to meditate for hundreds of years, his stamina to make love for hundreds of years (remember, the gods have a different time reference than the rest of us do), his equanimity, his temper. Shiva creates through the act of destruction. He is a study in contrasts — and most of us can relate to dichotomies. It’s particularly the case for me — on so many levels, dualities and contrasts mark my life and my personality.
MC Yogi has an awesome song about Ganesh called “Son of Shiva.” To understand the son you have to understand the father, so this song is a fun way to learn more about Shiva too. My favorite part talks about Shiva returning from his deep meditation on Mount Kailash:
it was at that time when Shiva returned
not knowing that his wife recently gave birth
when Shiva saw the boy he told him to move
but not knowing who his father was the boy refused
now Shiva’s like this, truth consciousness and bliss
but he’s crazy when he’s angry so don’t get him pissed
feeling dissed and dismissed Shiva started a rumble
an epic struggle that shook the jungle
then out of nowhere Shiva’s trident went chop
and that’s when the boy’s head was cut off
But all is not lost. Buy the album if you don’t already have it, and listen to the rest of the story.
There’s much more to know about Shiva (another blog post!) and so much more to know about his particular incarnation as Nataraja. Why is does Nataraja appear with four arms and one leg lifted? And what is that creature he appears to be standing on? See how two Ashtangis, Tim Miller and Michael Gannon, interpret this powerful symbol:
Tim Miller on Nataraja
I remember first reading Tim Miller’s “The Alchemy of Yoga” essay while staying at a hotel in Columbus, Ohio. (It’s always interesting to find a spark of inspiration while away from home, staying alone in a hotel.) In this quick-read essay, Timji — as his students like to refer to him — talks about how he believes “Nataraja, the King of Dancers, beautifully symbolizes the alchemy of Ashtanga yoga.”
Michael Gannon on Nataraja
Michael Gannon, who uses social media heavily, just posted this link to his recent talk on Shiva about 16 hours ago. In “Shiva Comes to Town,” Gannon does a lovely job of sharing how he uses the symbolism of Nataraja as destroyer to make sense of, accept, and move on from personal and even global tragedies. It’s 26 minutes long. If you’re like me and have a crazy schedule and the attention span of a tweet, let me tell you that it’s worth taking the time to listen. Play it while you’re waiting for coffee to brew, or as your’e whittling down your work email inbox.
I titled this post “Dancing with the Deities (A Not-So-Epic Overview)” because — while it’s rather long (probably too long) for a blog post — it hardly skims the surface of these rich stories. Take advantage of some of the labors of love listed here — whether you’re more into the iconized depictions as in The Little Book of Hindu Deities or into the kind of thoughtful, historical perspective you’ll find in Gregor Maehle’s book. Keep searching and uncover sweet wells of tales not listed here. More than anything, I hope you continue to get on your mat and find inspiration for your practice, and through your practice, however you can.
Photos (from top)
Nataraja: Photo of Nataraja statue, taken at The Yoga Sutra (a New York City yoga studio), May 2011
Aum: Aum at Hilltop Yoga’s Old Town 2 studio in Lansing, Mich., May 2011
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