Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Mahabharata, Purim and the Divine Acts of Shiva


We are finally concluding our study of the great Mahabharata. The last line of this epic story is: "What shall we play next?"  For the most part it is a serious tale: there is family drama, war, kingdoms won and lost...but in the end it's just play for the characters spinning out the tale, just another story in a universe of stories.

The Jewish holiday of Purim was this past weekend.  It is a very playful holiday that is born from another serious epic: as the story goes, the Jewish people are about to be killed (what's new, right?) but the interesting thing is how they are saved.  In most religious stories (including the Mahabharata) miracles occur as acts of divine intervention.  In this story the “miracles” that happen are natural events that all line up to create something miraculous.  It is the acts of people, not God, that bring salvation.  In the whole story God is not mentioned once - God is only hinted at.  To signify this concealment, it is customary to dress up in costume, appearing as something or someone else, while our true selves remain hidden beneath the masquerade.

My oldest son was very into the dressing up this year.  He is the kind of kid that appears very confident on the outside – he is successful in school and in sports, has lots of friends - but down deep often feels self-conscious and uncomfortable in his own skin. His costume this year included a mask and he was adamant about wearing it even though I thought it might scare some of the younger children.  He begged me: “But mom, then NO ONE will know who I am!”   I get that – there is a freedom in anonymity, a letting go of our usual persona to try on a different one.  When we put on a costume we can “play” at being someone else, and because it’s not really “us”, we can act out our life in a way that isn’t necessarily within our comfort zone and there is deep discovery and revelation in that kind of play.  It also helps us take life a little less seriously, something that I personally really need to work on, for a few reasons – first, because we know it’s temporary.  Second, it’s not really us so we can be more silly/wacky/wild/carefree etc. and blame it on the costume if we need an out.  Last, and most important, it’s play for the sake of play because really, if we're not enjoying our lives than what is the point?  It’s hard to take life too seriously when you are dressed as a hamentaschen (those little triangle cookies filled with something sweet, which is what my middle son dressed up as)!

And speaking of hidden sweets, this is such a Tantric idea.  The play of the universe is one of concealment and revelation – the Divine conceals itself within us, as us, merely for the joy of rediscovering Itself.  Our bodies are our original costumes, concealing our essence of sweetness, joy, and beauty in bones and muscles and skin.  This “costume” is part of who we are but it’s not the whole story. One of the greatest reasons for practicing yoga is to reconnect to and remember our true nature, the unlimited ephemeral spirit that is hidden and concealed within the limits of our physical bodies.  The practice reveals this to us through mindfulness and awareness, but also through playfulness. Did you ever notice that so many of the poses we practice on our mats are things we did naturally as children?  I see my kids break into spontaneous yoga poses all the time as part of their natural play.  When we cultivate playfulness in our lives we are reminded that life is a celebration, and it is easier to see the happiness and joy that is our true nature.  We try on each yoga pose to explore different aspects of our beings, and each pose gives us a new perspective physically as we arrange body parts to create the outer form, mentally as we face challenges like balancing on feet or hands, emotionally as feelings are released by the energy moving through us, and spiritually as we connect to something greater than ourselves, whether it is community or divinity.

Purim is about play.  You are obligated have a festive meal, get drunk (I’m not kidding), bring gifts to friends, and gather together to hear the story, which is marked with raucous cat calls when the “bad” guy’s name is mentioned.  It is a celebration of earthly pleasures, honoring the physical aspects of ourselves.  But we do it in costume, reminding ourselves that the physical is not all there is, that there is something bigger, something deeper, something richer than just skin and muscle and bone that is hidden, but is the essence of who we are.  And when we remember that, the party really begins.

Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue hidden inside of it.  It is up to the artist to chisel away to reveal it.”  This is what our yoga practice does – chisels away through the stony armor of our daily lives and stresses, the injuries and discomforts of our bodies, the drama of our stories, the hamster wheel churning of our minds and reveals to us the potential and the beauty of who we really are. We remember that every concealment is just the opportunity for revelation later.  Like when it’s 19 degrees during the first official week of spring…it makes that 60 degree day that is coming so much sweeter.

Off the Mat:   
Michelangelo also said “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free”.  Embrace playfulness this week.  What would set your inner angel free? Play dress up with your children or grandchildren, wear your hair a different way, learn a joke (clean or dirty, your choice!) and tell it to everyone you meet, do cartwheels, draw or color a picture, gather some friends for some good old junk food and play a round of Cranuim (my family’s favorite game) or Balderdash, play hooky from work and stay in your pajamas all day, etc. etc.

On the mat:
We worked on lots of playful poses in class this week – rolling side to side and into Setu Bandhasana from Dhanurasana, wild thing (which  became a pose since so many people fall out of Vasisthasana - side plank!), jumping into Ardha Chandrasana, hopping with 2 feet into Handstand.  You’ve got to have a sense of humor to try any of these  so give it a go – safely please! – and be prepared to laugh!

Open to Grace: Breathe in and expand your capacity for play, for joy for the sake of joy
Set your feet/hands with the intention to establish your foundation in fun.
Breathe in and connect to the masterpiece concealed in the stony exterior of your body.

Muscular Energy: Hug to the midline to connect with your true self, concealed within the costume of your skin.
Hug the midline to remember the divinity concealed within your earthy body.
Hug the midline to connect to your inner child who is playful, free spirited, and celebratory.

Inner Spiral:  Widen your sit-bones to make room for play in your life.
Move your inner thighs back and apart to make space for lightheartedness and levity.

Outer Spiral: Lengthen your tailbone and align with your true nature of happiness.

Organic Energy: Spread your toes to expand your capacity for silliness.
From the core of your pelvis extend through your feet to move out of your serious comfort zone.
Shine out your capacity for playfulness, cheerfulness, and buoyancy.
Let your divinity shine through the costume of your skin.