Life is filled with stormy waters. Rivers are never still. Even when frozen, things are still moving around underneath. Sometimes it’s helpful to have someone to help steer the way.
In the Indian epic Rāmāyaṇam, Rāma, Sītā and Lakṣmaṇa began their 14 year exile in the forest by sneaking off in the middle of the night so as not to upset all those they would be leaving. Soon into their journey, they came to the Ganges River and called out to his friend Guha, the boatman, to ferry them across.
Rām asked Guha to take them across, but to also
wait an entire day before ferrying anyone else, so that no one could follow
them. Wanting to spend more time with Rām,
Guha tries to convince them to spend the night, but Rām wants to get a move on, and says he wants to leave now.
Trying again to spend more time with Rām, Guha suggests they eat some rice before they go, but Rām again orders the boat “RIGHT
As Guha readies the boat, he jokingly says to Rām, “I heard the dust of your feet
turned a stone into a woman. I hope you don’t turn my boat into a woman! Can I
at least wash your feet before you enter?”
Exasperated with this ordeal in just the first leg of their
14 year journey, Rām agrees to
allow Guha to wash his feet. They finally set off in the early morning before
everyone wakes up. Guha ferries Rām,
Sītā and Lakṣmaṇa across the Ganges river. Now that they have a
river separating them from the people of Ayodhyā, Ram takes a moment to hug Guha goodbye, and then Rāma, Sītā and Lakṣmaṇa enter the Daṃḍaka forest
to begin their exile.
Shiva’s first wife was named Sati, who was a princess. Her father, King Daksha, did not approve of their marriage AT ALL. He thought Shiva was a bit of a dirtbag – he has long dreadlocks and is covered in ash and tattoos. He hangs out in graveyards with ghouls and ghosts and is covered in snakes. He also smokes something called bhang, which is a marijuana derivative. Daksha did NOT think Shiva was prince material. Shiva and Sati got married anyway, and pretty much kept to themselves. They lived on Mount Kailash, on the outskirts of the kingdom, and let Daksha do his thing.
As part of Daksha’s political responsibilities, he was in
charge of making sure that all Vedic rituals were done properly. He was
throwing a large party (a yajña,
or ritualistic ceremony) where a goat was to be offered to the sacrificial
fire. Daksha invited EVERYONE in the kingdom, no matter who they were, EXCEPT
for Shiva and Sati. Sati was extremely upset, and told Shiva they should go to
the party anyway. Shiva thought she was crazy, and told her she could go by
herself if she wanted, but he was going to stay home and meditate.
Sati attended the party on her own, and when she arrived, Daksha started pointed and laughing at her, saying horrible things about her and Shiva, all of the attendees joined in the laughter, and it got worse and worse as the party went on. The yajña was a mockery in and of itself. The Lord of the Universe (Shiva) wasn’t even invited and was being made fun of. All Daksha truly cared about was showing off his wealth. There was no truth or honor behind this Vedic ritual. Sati became more and more upset, and decided to offer herself to the fire, and threw herself into the flames.
Shiva heard about the
death of Sati and was completely distraught. He was angry at Daksha and felt
guilty about letting Sati attend the party on her own, so out of pure anger, grief
and despair, he ripped out one of his dreadlocks, threw it to the earth, and
out from the earth rose Vīrabhadra
with a sword in his hands (in the form of Warrior I) (vīra = hero/warrior,
bhadra = friend).
Vīrabhadra is Shiva’s warrior friend, but also the embodiment
of all of Shiva’s emotional distress. He is also just a foot-soldier; he only
does what he is told, without any thought behind it, following orders without
second-guessing. Shiva sends Vīrabhadra to the yajña to avenge the death of Sati. Vīrabhadra again
bursts through the earth with sword in hand. Spots Daksha across the way and
points his sword at him (Warrior II) and chops off his head.
Shiva arrives soon after to check out the situation, and
immediately regrets what he’s done. Now Shiva does this a lot – he chops
people’s heads off out of anger, and only regrets his actions afterwards. He
always feels bad, and will bring them back to life with the head of the nearest
animal, which happens to be the goat that was never sacrificed. So now Daksha
is a part man, part goat. Shiva also chops heads off out of compassion, so that
we cut off the head of the ego, learn from our mistakes, and make changes for a
hopefully better future. Daksha now has to live with the head of a goat, but
hopefully does better this time around…
Shiva asks Vīrabhadra to pick Sati up out of the sacrificial
fire and they fly home (in the form of Warrior III) to give her a proper
burial. As they are flying home, pieces of Sati’s burnt body fall into the
ocean and across the land, and there are Shaivanists, or devotees of Shiva, who
have what they believe to be actual relics of Sati. Sati was reincarnated
thousands of years later as Parvati, who became Shiva’s second wife and Shakti
a lot happening in this story, but mostly the characters are an allegory for
the human condition. How many times have you acted out of anger and regretted
your actions after? What would happen if you blindly followed orders without
questioning why you are doing what you are doing? How does it make you feel
when you hear unkind words? Are you practicing yoga just to show off your
skills, or is there a deeper meaning behind the practice?
The physical warrior āsanas can be quite challenging when held, and give us an opportunity to explore emotions that come up. Are you clenching your jaw, biting your lips, scrunching your eyebrows (your lips and eyebrows cannot help – they just make your face look pretty! They try really hard though 😉 Is your breathing jagged, or smooth? You cannot remove the mind from the body, and what you do with the body affects the mind. These practices involve the whole being. The warrior poses offer an opportunity to smooth this out – to find a grace an ease that allows us to embody a spiritual warrior rather than chopping through life.
All the money in the world won’t buy us happiness, but neither will ditching life to go meditate in a cave. There must be something in the middle – a way to live this life we have with an embodiment of happiness and joy – even with the annoying people on the streets of NYC, and loud teenagers on the subway 🙂
The arm balance eka pada kaundinyasana also requires a graceful balance – moving forward enough to lift the back leg off the floor, while still keeping the head and chest lifted – all while having the courage to possibly fall out of it!
When it’s cold and rainy in NYC, maybe you want to curl up in a Child’s Pose (bālāsana) and hear stories of Baby Krishna (Gopāla)?
In connection to this month’s focus at Jivamukti Yoga, maybe we start to look at our yoga practice with the playfulness of a child (Bāla) rather than setting goals or striving to achieve something that in this particular moment might be unattainable. Maybe in each āsana we embody the animal form we are coming into rather than worrying so much about getting it perfect (this by all means does not mean we don’t try, or keep safe anatomical alignment, but more along the lines of not becoming angry or disappointed if it’s not “perfect” right now. Practice and all is coming!)
The “goal” of yoga (if you must have one) is to find the joy and happiness of a child in our everyday lives!
Garuda’s mother, Vinata, lost a bet against her sister (due
to trickery and deceit, but that is a whole other story), and was obligated to
serve the Nagas, or snake kingdom, the duration of her life.
While growing up, Garuda was obliged to take orders from the
snakes, waiting on them hand and foot, just like Cinderella, but did not
understand why he, as king of the birds, was required to listen to the snakes.
After some investigating, he found out about his mother’s debt and asked the
Nagas how he could set her free.
They agreed to alleviate Vinata from her debt if Garuda
brought them a pot of immortality nectar (amṛta). The nectar was being
guarded by the devas, who surrounded it with three Indiana Jones type booby
The first was a large ring of fire that Garuda extinguished
by taking the water of the rivers in his mouth and pouring it on the fire. The
second was a mechanical door with sharp rotating blades. Garuda wrapped himself
in his wings, shrunk down in size and was able to slip through the door with
ease. Garuda finally arrived where the nectar was being held, and found it was
being guarded by two huge snakes (Indiana Jones would be in BIG TROUBLE!)
Garuda rapidly flapped his wings, creating a dust storm that blinded the
snakes, and while they couldn’t see, attacked them with his beak.
Garuda took the nectar into his mouth without swallowing it,
and started flying home. Along the way, Indra caught up to him and asked Garuda
to return the nectar, as this was how the Gods and Goddesses maintained their
immortality. Garuda promised that once the nectar was delivered to the Nagas,
he would make it possible for Indra to take it back.
Garuda finally arrived home and the Nagas could hardly wait
to drink the nectar. He placed the nectar in a pot on the grass in front of
them, and asked if his mother could now be set free. Greedy to drink the
nectar, they immediately agreed. Garuda convinced them that before they drink
it, they should perform a cleansing ritual.
As the Nagas went off to clean, Indra swept in and took the pot of nectar. When the Nagas returned, they saw a few drops of the nectar in the grass and started to lap it up with their tongues. The nectar was so powerful that it split their tongues in two, and because it was only a few drops, instead of becoming immortal, they would periodically shed their skin. From then on snakes were born with a split tongue and could shed their skin, and Garuda and his mother were free from their debt.
If you do too much too quickly, your fire will burn out. If you take on more then you can handle, your fire will burn out. If you try to shove your knee to your ankle in agnistambhasana before it’s ready, your fire (and your knee!) will burn out! Take things slow, breath deep and take it all in. Practice and all is coming.
Bharadvāja was a dedicated yoga student and devoted his entire life to studying the vedas. All he did, all day, every day, was study. He studied so much, that he exhausted an entire lifetime doing so.
rebirth, Bharadvāja did the same thing all over again. He thought the more he
studied, the more likely it was that he’d break the cycle of saṃsāra, the continuous circle of birth, death, and rebirth.
He again exhausted an entire lifetime just studying.
In his third lifetime, Bharadvāja again did the
same thing. At this point people all over the kingdom would whisper to each
other about the weird hermit who never left his home and only studied yoga. He
was giving yoga a bad name! Who wants to study yoga if your just trapped inside
all day reading thousand-paged books and never having any fun? He had no
family, no friends, and was always alone. What kind of life is it if you can’t
share it with others?
end of this third lifetime, Shiva came to Bharadvāja at his deathbed. Bharadvāja
thought that this was finally it! That he knew the vedas so well that he would
not have to be re-born and could live with the Gods and Goddesses. But oh was
he wrong! Shiva scolded him (in a loving gentle way), and asked what on earth Bharadvāja
thought he was doing? He spends all this time studying, but what good is all
this yogic knowledge if he isn’t sharing it with others? Why keep the joy of
yoga to himself when he could help others find joy and happiness as well?
fourth lifetime, Bharadvāja finally understood. Rather than living his hermit
lifestyle, he became a teacher. And not only was he a teacher, but he also had
more friends than he could have ever imagined. Rather than finding yoga in just
books, he was living it.
At the end of this lifetime, Shiva again came to visit Bharadvāja. “You did it,” Shiva exclaimed! “You finally get it! You no longer have to be subjected to karmas and re-birth. Come let’s go, you’ll love it in “The Good Place.” But Bharadvāja refused, instead choosing to again be re-born as a teacher, deciding that living this great joyful life was all he needed.
In this challenging
arm balance, the bound leg represents the rope, or gāla, tied around Gālava’s waist, and the
extended leg is the tail of the rope being held by his mother. In order to
maintain the āsana, a counter-balance must be present, and it looks almost like
a see-saw. Bringing weight into the hands, the upper torso moves towards the
earth while maintaining a lift in the head and sternum. At the same time, the
back leg lifts up off the floor, all the way up towards the sky, to an angle at
which the body is in one straight line from head to toe, and looks like a
see-saw. Once the back leg lifts high enough, past the fulcrum point of the
front leg resting on the arms, the āsana feels a bit weightless, like you are
The story of how Gālava received his name also lends itself as a reminder that there must be a balance between our yoga practice and our everyday lives. Ideally we are living our lives in a joyful, yogic way, but we also can’t ditch our family, friends, and responsibilities just to practice. It is easy to become seduced by the benefits of a daily yoga practice – it has a magical affect on our body, mind and soul! But this might start to be an issue if you are missing dinner with your family or friends, or your kid’s soccer game just to get a class in. A Jīvanmukta is one who has found liberation in THIS LIFETIME. Which means that you have reached a state of enlightenment, but you are still living in this current world, in this body, with the same everyday responsibilites. You are just not affected by the ups and downs of everyday life. (Supposedly…I am not there yet!)
Śiva and Viṣṇu were hanging out… Viṣṇu was sitting on his serpent couch ĀdiŚeṣa, who is also sometimes referred to as Anantā. They were listening to the beat of Śiva’s ḍamaru drum, and Śiva was performing his cosmic dance. Viṣṇu became so captivated by the dance of Śiva that he started to vibrate to the rhythm – becoming heavier and heavier, starting to crush ĀdiŚeṣa.
dance was over, the weight was lifted. ĀdiŚeṣa was so amazed by this by this dramatic
change he expressed a wish for legs so he can learn to dance.
same exact time, Gonika, a dovited yogini, was praying for a worthy son to pass
along her knowledge of yoga. Viṣṇu, who is the sustainer of the world and yogic
knowledge, sent ĀdiŚeṣa down to earth. He fell from the heavens into the palms
of Gonika (legs and all!) and she named her new son Patañjali
(pat = to fall; añjali = palms).
Patañjali grew up to be a great vedic scholar. He went
through thousands and thousands of pages of veda (so we didn’t have to! Thanks Patañjali!),
took what he thought was the most essential, and strung them together. He
compiled three books: Purification of Speech, Purification of Body and
Purification of Mind. The Purification of Mind is what we commonly refer to as The
Yoga Sutras of Patañjali.
Anantā means infinite or endless, and Ādi means first. It refers to the state of yoga – timeless, beyond birth, death, and all changes in between—a limitless state of joy and contentment. Anantāsana helps us cultivate this sense of contentment and equanimity. It requires a bit of balance, flexibility, and core strength – all aspects we need in our every day lives!
Anjaneya was the son
of Vayu, the wind God, and Anjana, a mortal woman. Because of his demi-God
status, Anjaneya had superpowers – he could grow really large, and shrink
really small, he had super-strength and could leap to great heights. Because of
this, Anajaneya was unintentionally a bit of a troublemaker as a child.
One morning, Anjaneya
saw the sun in the sky and thought it was a mango. He leapt up to eat the sun,
but before he could, Surya, the sun god, threw a lightning bolt that hit
Anjaneya in the jaw (hanu in Sanskrit) and he fell to the earth.
The Gods and Goddess
were in distress. This little guy with all of his powers could cause the
destruction of the world. They agreed to revive him, but with short-term
memory, so that he would never remember the powers he had. He was given the
in reference to his broken jaw, was sent to foster with Sugriva the monkey king
and was given the form of a monkey to fit in with his new family. Hanumān lived
most of his life with no knowledge of the true power he held within.
When Hanumān was grown, he met Rām
in the Dandaka forest and joined him on his journey to save Sītā from the evil demon Rāvaṇa.
After travelling for many days, they arrived at a large ocean that was
separating them from the island of Lanka, where Sītā was being held. Hanumān was distraught and felt defeated.
They had come all this way, and all he wanted was to help his friend Rām. He
was about to give up when his friend Jambavana, King of the Bears, whispered in
his ear that Hanumān was more powerful than he realized. With that subtle
reminder, Hanumān, out of pure love, devotion and joy for Sītā and Rām, and without thinking about tight
hamstrings, quadriceps or psoas muscles, leapt across the ocean to the island
of Lanka to save Sītā.
us are more capable that we realize, and we all have so much power within, it
is just clouded sometimes, by physical and/or emotional pain. We are all
stronger than we know, and can handle A LOT. Most of the time, when we finally
leap across what seems like a very large chasm of an ocean, we say to
ourselves, “Well, that wasn’t so bad!” On the other hand, sometimes we don’t
realize how powerful we actually are. That our thoughts, words and actions,
hold so much power, that we don’t realize how what we put out into the world
affects the other living beings around us.
Hanumānāsana requires a balance of strength, trust, ease, grace, and a bit of fearlessness. Rather than focusing on tightness and un-comfortableness of the āsana, you can return to the intention you set in the beginning of class. Offering the efforts of your practice to someone other than yourself is one way of bringing a sense of mindfulness into the practice. Let go of what is holding you back!