Saturday, February 27, 2010

Hanuman devotees: Would you like to hear a story?

Do you sometimes wish you were a little child at bedtime, waiting for someone to tell you a story? Here's a wonderful tale of Lord Hanuman, monkey god and beloved servant of Lord Rama. Unlike any Hanuman katha I have heard before!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"Only an impure disciple would attempt to confine living wisdom in a jail of paper behind bars of ink."

This is another quote from the wonderful The Greatness of Saturn by Robert Svoboda. It is part of his exposition of the importance and meaning of oral tradition, but the quote has an additional meaning for me.

As a former journalist and lifelong writer,I was always keenly aware of the limitations of words to convey meaning and emotion. To me, the written word was a mere exercise or parlour game in which one attempted to convey one's thoughts and feelings, but could never be sure of words' effect on the reader.

Svoboda continues, "Literalists may cling to writing, but those who wish to truly comprehend the living wisdom within a text must seek it in a living oral tradition, for 'understanding the text does not necessarily mean attaining an intellectual mastery of its contents'."

Intellectual mastery of information or techniques does not necessarily result in understanding. This is one reason that students seek living masters and gurus. It is the reason that the student can often feel a flash of understanding and enlightenment in the presence of a great teacher. Sometimes that flash of understanding can come from something the teacher has said to the student, but often it comes from the example of the teacher or by her own presence, by the depth of her own knowledge or by her personal integrity.

Svoboda writes that recitation of myth transforms the teller into its image. The myth holder is then able to transform the lives of the hearer through the power of the gods whose tales are told. This is nothing but the old concept of catharsis. But imagine all of the ways we can access this connection to the divine and transformative in daily life.

Let's walk away from the computer screen and experience living wisdom in a story told by a friend, a walk through nature, darshan of a guru or teacher, or even a yoga class!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Relaxing is not doing nothing

Many who are new to yoga don't believe they're getting their money's worth if they don't sweat bullets and push themselves to the brink of total exhaustion in every class.

Part of this may be that people are so time-strapped these days they feel they need to get a full week's worth of exercise in just one hour. And, if that hour just happens to be yoga class: oww!

But . . . do you think you deserve one hour a week devoted simply to letting go? Could you carve out that hour by reducing slightly your recreational time on the internet or watching tv? Could this be a worthwhile experiment? Giving this kind of experiment a 6-week try at Yogam Saranam would set you back only $48, and there are many other yoga studios throughout the Chicago area that offer a once-a-week low-cost community class.

For more about the concept of learning to let go and release stress through the medium of hatha yoga, check out this great article by Susi Hately Aldous.

And, remember, you can take a moment to breathe anywhere and at any time. Just focus your attention inward, take a slow deep abdominal breath to the mental count of three,and exhale to a mental count of three. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Opening to Grace: You Are Never Alone

The hatha yoga teacher training program from which I graduated used, as its basis, the universal principles of alignment codified by John Friend in his Anusara Yoga. (You'll find a brief description of those principles at the end of this post.)

One principle that was especially inspiring was the idea of "opening to grace." As a long-time professional dancer and dance teacher, I was familiar with calling on unseen forces to help me center myself for challenging movement sequences, but in the context of yoga, this concept has an even deeper meaning for me.

To give just one example: If you are deeply connected to all of the life-force (prana) in the universe and can breathe deeply to collect more of this energy into the core of your being, you can, at every moment, have access to much more capacity for transformation, self-expression, and being than just the physical little mass of muscles, bones, and nerves that we sometimes think we are.

One of the many beauties of hatha yoga is that it challenges us, in a safe way, to use our bodies to reach the deepest levels of our hearts, minds, and spirits.

Anusara Yoga: The Universal Principles of Alignment

Open To Grace: Firmly stepping into the currents of grace with a solid foundation and a heart open to the infinite possibilities.

Muscular Energy: Drawing from the outside in, from the periphery into the focal point* of a pose. Creates strength, stability, and a full physical integration.

Inner Spiral: An expanding energy that spirals inwardly from the feet up the legs, through the top of the pelvis, away from the core. Inner Spiral helps you widen the thighs and pelvis.

Outer Spiral: A contracting energy that spirals outwardly toward the core, from the waist down through the feet. Since this energy brings the tailbone and thighs forward, the idea is to find the balance between inner and outer spiral—in every pose.

Organic Energy: Radiating energy from the inside out, starting from the focal points of the pose to the body’s periphery. Organic Energy is an expansive expression of our own true nature, which is inherently auspicious and free.

*The focal point is one of the three places you draw into and expand out from and is determined by the most weight-bearing part of the pose; 1)the core of the pelvis (legs, torso); 2) the bottom of the heart (arms); or 3) the upper palate (head).

Here's more on the concept of loops and spirals.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Wisdom from The Heart of Yoga

One of my favorite books about the theory and practice of yoga is TKV Desikachar's The Heart of Yoga. Here's just a sample of the wisdom the book contains:

"Yoga recommends two possible ways for achieving the qualitie of sukha, comfort and lightness, and sthira, steady alertness. The first is to locate knots and resisances in the body and release them. This happens only gradually . . . . The means we use to release blocks and resistances must not adversely affect the body. We must proceed carefully. If we force the body we will experience pain or other unpleasant feelings and the problems will, in the long run, get worse instead of better. The body can only gradually accept an asana. It is by proceeding gently that we will feel light and be able to breathe easily in the position and therefore really benefit from it.

"The second possible means for realizing the concept of sthirasukha consists of visualizing the perfect posture. For this we use the image of the cobra Ananta, the king of the serpents, carrying the whole universe on his head while providing a bed for the Lord Vishnu on his coiled body. Ananta must be completely relaxed in order to make a soft bed for the lord. This is the idea of sukha. Yet the snake cannot be feeble and weak; it must be stong and steady in order to support the universe. That is the idea of sthira. Together these qualities give us the image and the feeling of a perfect asana."

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Matsyendrasana: The story of Matsyendra

Matsyendra, namesake of Half Lord of the Fishes pose (Matsyendrasana), was a medieval north-Indian sage, tantric adept, and author of the Matsyendra Samhita (a collection of mantras and hymns). Among many stories you may be able to find about him, the following were of most interest to me.

In the article "Heroes, Saints, and Sages" at, Colleen Morton Busch writes:
"Matsyendra appears to have been an actual historical person, not just a figure of myth. Born in Bengal around the 10th century c.e., he is venerated by Buddhists in Nepal as an incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. As with most Indian myths, there are many versions of the story of Matsyendra's metamorphosis into a realized adept—and all of them illustrate the radical transformation that yoga makes possible.

"In one popular version, the infant Matsyendra is thrown into the ocean because his birth has occurred under inauspicious planets. Swallowed by a giant fish, he overhears Shiva teaching the mysteries of yoga to his consort Parvati in their secret lair at the bottom of the ocean. Matsyendra is spellbound. After spending 12 years in the fish's belly, all the while exploring yoga's esoteric practices, he emerges as an enlightened master."

She also mentions that Matsyendrasana is one of the few asanas described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

David Gordon White writes cryptically in The alchemical body: Sidha traditions in medieval India:
"In a curious way, Matsyendra is doubly connected, by this name [although he does not seem to explain how], to the lower half of the yogic body, the place of the sleeping kundalini. However, just as the kundalini sleeps at a turning point in the play of divine manifestation and resorption, so too, the symbol system constructed around Matsyendra's name is an ambivalent one. An extensive body of medieval sources connect Matsyndra to his doctrine of the fish belly [again . . . what?] through a mythic gloss of this name. Matsyendranatha means "He Whose Lord is the Lord of Fishes". . ., and his connection with fish is explained through a myth in which the Goddess . . . has asked Siva to teach her the most secret of all esoteric knowledge, things he has never told her before. This Siva agrees to do, but he has barely launched into what will turn out to be the essence of the Hindu tantric teachings than does the Goddess fall asleep. Siva's words do not, however, go unheeded. Matsyendra, who has been swallowed by a fish (whence his name in these sources), draws up to the shoreline and overhears everything."

So what do we take from all of this? For me, the twisting action of Matsyendrasana does provide an opening for kundalini energy to be activated and offers the spine as a vortex of energy or bindu of the mandala which is our own body.

Does anyone else know more? I would love to hear.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Virabhadrasana: The story of Virabhadra

Virabhadrasana is not the pose of an anonymous warrior, it's the pose of Virabhadra, the "auspicious hero" born from a bead of sweat from Lord Shiva's forehead.

Here's what Dr. Robert Svoboda has to say (in his wonderful book The Greatness of Saturn) about Virabhadra:

"No sooner did this drop of sweat fall to Earth than it became a fiery being of unlimited valor who, after blazing his way through the earth and through all the underworlds, burnt the seven seas. This being, Virabhadra ('the Auspicious Hero') looked like a flaming fire, having many heads and many eyes, and tens of thousands of arms and legs. The embodiment of concentrated might, Virabhadra stood before his father with folded hands, saying, 'Command me!'"

The three forms of Virabhadrasana present three different expressions of this powerful hero. Next time you perform one of the Virabhadrasanas, imagine yourself capable of anything that needs to be accomplished -- because you are!

Want to read The Greatness of Saturn online? Very illuminating to anyone interested in Vedic astrology or Hindu mythology: here's the link to the full text.