Last fall, we explored six iconic Gods and Goddesses from Indian yoga traditions and mythology during the Wednesday evening Power Flow classes. We often hear of, or see images of, Hindu deities in the yoga world. And while we do not need to take them too seriously (like anything in yoga!) or apply them literally, their stories and aspects shed light on yoga’s overarching goals. I hope you enjoyed learning about their stories, trying the poses associated with their energy, and chanting their mantras. We alternated masculine and feminine deities, and on a few occasions, listened to live kirtan music played by Daniel on his harmonium.
Personally, I feel we can learn from these ancient figures by applying lessons and qualities invoked by them to our modern lives, regardless of your personal religious or spiritual beliefs. Here is a brief summary highlighting the main teachings of each God/Goddesses.
We began with Shiva, who represents consciousness itself. His name in Sanskrit means liberation, or freedom. Shiva is one of the three gods of the Trimurti, representing destruction, or the end of the cycle (the other two being: Brahma the creator, and Vishnu the sustainer). His destructive energy does not, however, have negative denotation. The shedding of the ego, old habits, attachment or aversion is instead a purification power. In essence, nothing is really destroyed by the illusion of individuality, so this purifying quality works both on the personal and universal levels. Known as the patron of yoga, Shiva is depicted by the art of meditation and we chant, “Om Namah Shivaya” (listen to Krishna Das’s version at www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcdI-c-jAWQ). The statue of “Shiva’s dance” is commonly found in yoga studios, and we explored the symbolism of this dance, or “Ananda (= the bliss of being) tandava (= the dance)”. In the statue, Shiva stands on one leg over the dwarf he eventually came to defeat. The story goes that Shiva would strike this dwarf on the battlefield, and each drop of the dwarf’s blood that landed on the earth produced a clone of the dwarf, resulting in an entire army. This suggests that we can actually make a problem bigger by responding violently to it. Have you ever found yourself forcing a situation, only to wind up with less desirable circumstances? Shiva finally learned how to rise above his circumstances, thus his victory is celebrated by this dance. The ring of fire represents the fact that challenging situations never disappear, but that we learn how overcome them and avoid being burned by them. His hands hold a drum and a flame, balancing creation and destruction (birth and death) in the natural world. And his raised right hand suggests “Fear nothing,” inviting us to find stillness, or steadiness, amidst chaos.
In class, we used challenging poses, dancer’s pose and Shiva’s pose to put this to the test ourselves, at least on the mat. We use poses to get into the body, the body to get into the mind, the mind to get into our heart, and our heart to get into the bliss of being. One take home message for today’s living is, “Whatever is in the way, is the way.” Next time you encounter an obstacle, ask yourself what you can learn from it.
Onto a feminine diety, we then turned to Lakshmi, the goddess of light, beauty and good fortune. The mantra “Om shri, maha Lakshmi Namah” calls, “May I recognize and honor the divine abundance within”. Wife of Vishnu (God of preservation), she is associated with both material and spiritual wealth and prosperity. We offered up our hands in lotus mudra to emulate Lakshmi’s prosperity and generosity, and focused on heart openers and hip openers. In our daily lives, when we perceive or experience lacking of money, health, support, etc., our physical tendency is to contract, tense up, or close off. The heart expansion postures counteract that contraction, and allow for the receptivity of Lakshmi’s abundance and grace!
Stories depict Lakshmi arising from the sea with outstretched hands of ever-flowing gold coins, so we focused on fluid, watery movements engaging our second chakra. They say that all Gods and Goddesses convened to bring forth the nectar of immortality, so they planted a mountain in the ocean and wrapped a large snake around it. From their churning of the mountain, a poison first arose, but then dissolved. Lakshmi was then born, bringing with her all of her gifts of beauty and abundance. Many Hindu women invoke Lakshmi in their households during the month of October, which is dedicated to worshipping her. There are also special offerings to her during the auspicious celebrations of Diwali.
From Laskhmi we can learn to enjoy the gifts of this world, without becoming attached or infatuated by them. Additionally, the wealth is not for one’s own material desires, but to be shared for the benefit of others. She embodies charm and grace, and we are reminded to express gratitude and giving.
Lord Hanuman, the monkey god, represents courage and devotion. In the Ramayana (one of two Indian epic poems), the story of Hanuman reminds us to keep the faith and to practice selfless service. Like many monkeys of that era, Hanuman possessed super powers. He was the son of Vayu, the God of Wind, but was known to be quite cheeky and mischievous. As a youngster, his rascality got him into trouble, so the Gods punished him by casting a spell over him so that he would forget about his super powers.
It was told that King Rama’s wife Sita was kidnapped on the island of what is today Sri Lanka. The King of the monkeys called together all monkeys to see who could rescue Sita by jumping across southern India to Sri Lanka. The monkeys debated who could make this giant leap, when suddenly one of the monkeys suggested it to Hanuman, saying, “You are the son of Wind, you have done this before and you can do it now.” But Hanuman was unconfident, reluctant and oblivious to his super powers. At that moment, the sky opened up and Vayu Wind caressed Hanuman’s head, inflating Hanuman’s body. Now capable of undertaking the daunting feat, this first jump is called the “leap of faith”, which gave Hanuman more and more trust in his abilities, and developed into a leap of knowing.
Our practice in class worked with shedding layers of doubt that can cloud our own vision and powers, and to see the expansiveness that becomes possible when devotion is in the heart. Our peak pose was full splits pose (Hanumanasana), with variations of side plank (Vasisthasana) and other leg stretches. The stretching of our legs became a symbolic expression of reaching with devotion to our true inner practice, and encouraging each other to let ego go and surrender. You might be surprised by what you’re capable of in those moments of utter courage, and can thank Hanuman for his inspiration.
Our fourth Hindu god of the series was Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and the arts. Along with Lakshmi (see above) and Parvati, she is part of the female trinity, or Tridevi. Consort to creator Brahma, Saraswati embodies creativity. Saraswati is a multifaceted deity, gifted with knowledge and music, speech, communication. She reminds us that to be a true seeker, we must tune our mind and intellect to achieve equilibrium of being free from both attachment and from aversion. Her name means both “the essence of the self” and “the one with plenty of water”. The river of consciousness that enlivens creation also dispels chaos and confusion, and knowledge helps humankind to find possibilities where he once saw problems. Saraswati is depicted on a lotus seat, rooted in supreme reality. Her white sari gives tribute to her purity and true intentions. Her four arms showcase omnipresence and omnipotence and denote mind, intellect, alertness and ego. Her mala is a symbol of the meditation required to reach samadhi (union with the divine) and a swan is her vehicle to overcome fear and fickleness. The peacock, on the other hand, denotes unpredictability, or the chaos that is bound to arise in our mind, but that we have the ability to overcome with discipline.
The Gayatri mantra is associated with Saraswati; the version I learned chanting to can be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=P26ZvKY–KY, though Deva Premal has a popular, modern version at www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHpA6qotiwg). Creativity and fluidity were the main aspects of our physical practice inspired by Saraswati.
Ganesha, is probably one of the most familiar Hindu Gods to Westerners. You might see a framed photo of Ganesha in your favorite Indian restaurant, or a statue of the elephant-headed god. Referred to as the “Gate Keeper”, Ganesha is the son of Shiva who is known for removing obstacles and bringing success, and is often invoked at the beginning of rituals or at the start of a new undertaking. Have you ever wondered why this human, pot-bellied god has the head of an elephant?
While guarding the gate and preventing anyone from passing through, his father Shiva arrived insisting to be let into his house. Somehow Shiva didn’t recognize his son, and lost patience with Ganesha, pulling out his sword and decapitating him in one swing. Shiva’s wife, Parvati, the mother of Ganesha, emerged and was filled with mourning and suffering. The gods granted them the favor of returning Ganesha to life, after seeking out the first animal in the jungle with its head facing north. So after finding an elephant in the jungle, its head became that of Ganesha.
Ganesha places himself in your way to help you overcome your obstacles. Often associated with the first chakra and pelvic floor, we worked poses to help us begin creating deep openings, and therefore deep changes, in our own lives. Ganesha represents the beginning, which is like using poses (asanas) in developing our yoga practice. The physical sequence helps us to focus on breath and still our mind, which eventually allows us to concentrate more and more deeply. As the destroyer of pride and selfishness, he allows us to look beyond the form of our material universe. Ganesha’s vehicle is a mouse, symbolizing the small self, which allows him to slide into small spaces and destroy obstacles of all sizes. Patron of the arts and sciences, Ganesha is also worshipped as the god of education and wisdom. The mantra associated with Ganesha is “Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha” (listen to Deva Premal’s version at www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AK44boAd_I).
We finished our series with fierce Kali, the unmistakable goddess of destruction and liberation. A fiery practice emulated Kali’s fiery nature and transformative nature and wove cyclical mudras and variations into the physical sequence. The great recycler, her destructive powers allow for rebirth and revealing of the true self and overcome the idea of “I-am-my-body”. Thus Kali is often associated with nudity (our naked, true Self) and sexuality (rebirth) as she liberates us from the cycle of karma (her sword is used to destroy this “false consciousness”).
Our ego arises out of the identification and attachment to our bodies. The Mahanirvana Tantra explains: “Just as all colors disappear in black, so all names and forms disappear in her”. Her name means “time,” and the representation of past, present and future is depicted by her three eyes.
Stories of Kali recount her defeat of Raktabija, a dark force who the other gods couldn’t beat. Each time a drop of blood from the demons fell to the earth, it reproduced another demon. Shiva was called upon, but he was deeply meditating. So his wife Parvati took Kali’s form and went into battle against Raktabija. She rolled her tongue out onto the battle field like a carpet, in order to catch all enemies’ blood and prevent continual replication, which is why she is depicted with her tongue out. During battle, Kali ended up getting carried away with her killing spree, so Lord Shiva thrust himself under her to startle her back to her senses. This gesture is how we wind up viewing Shiva sprawled out beneath Kali’s feet, symbolic of how his energy is inert without her.
Our practice was inspired with warrior and goddess possess, using powerful breath-of-fire and lion’s breath pranayama. While we might be fearful of this warrior’s exterior and abilities, she is just the right friend to have around to keep us authentic. It was a strong completion to a six-part series, wrapping up before the darkness of winter solstice. Channeling Kali gave me more courage to confront the perceived demons I experience during this season, and stressed the illusory outer nature of this reality. Phew!