Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Wisdom of Durga: Asking for Help

The myth of the goddess Durga begins with 2 brothers, Shumbha and Nishumbha.  These brothers want to maximize their spiritual power and to do so undertake a host of intense yogic austerities - standing on one leg in a ring of fire, holding their breath for 1000 years w/arms raised overhead, etc. When Brahma sees their intense practice of tapas (discipline, dedication), he rewards their efforts by granting them the boon they had been seeking: that no man or god can defeat them in battle.   (One of the lessons of this myth is that everyone is offered gifts - it is up to the receiver what they do with the gifts they are given.  Not the lesson I want to talk about today, but worth a mention. Back to the story....)

With their new found power the brothers (known as asuras or demon-gods) become invincible and set about wreaking havoc on the world – they amass enormous armies and conquer everything worth conquering, including land, prisoners, art and women.   When it gets too much to bear, the gods come together to discuss what to do and realize there is a loophole to this boon:  the one thing the brothers can be defeated by is a woman.  Unfortunately there were no female warriors on Earth.  The Great Goddess, up until this point, has been hidden, happy to channel her skills in the form of consorts to the male gods and has ruled from “behind the curtain”.  But the gods realize she alone can solve their problem, so they go to her and for 20,000 years entreaty her to come to earth and set things right.

This is the central teaching of the Durga myth - the Goddess is waiting to be asked.  Sally Kempton in Awakening Shakti says, "Because she is hidden, in order to act in the world the Goddess needs us to ask for help."  To access her transformative power we need to call it out, ask for it, pray for it.  "The power is there, but we have to summon the courage or desperation to ask for it, and it is only in doing so that we bring it forth."

So the Great Goddess descends to Earth in the form of Durga, riding on a lion and bearing an impressive array of weaponry.   In the midst of the epic battle that ensues many other goddesses are born from Durga’s body to fight the onslaught of the huge army the brothers had amassed: first Kali emerges from her 3rd eye (ajna chakra), then Indrani, Saraswati, Vaisnavi, Chinnamasta, and Bhairavi all emanate forth.  The goddesses of course defeat the brothers and their armies, and as Durga lays the killing blow, the asuras realize who she is, and smile with the ecstasy of the goddess filling their being as they dissolve back into her body.

Durga manifesting Kali from her 3rd eye during the fight.

This battle represents the inner battle that happens in us when we undertake any transformative spiritual practice.   For most of us, it is harder to ask for help or to say we don’t understand or we don’t know how to move forward, than to just keep doing what we’re doing and on the surface muddle through.  Yet when we do this, no shift or change in the underlying pattern occurs and so it repeats itself and we stay stuck where we are. It’s like that old saying “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.”  The times in my life when I have been strong and courageous enough to admit what I couldn’t handle, given voice to my stuck-ness, and either asked for exactly what I needed or admitted I didn’t even know what to ask for are the times when I have had huge breakthroughs, when my life has changed direction and charted a new course.  Even the Great Goddess couldn't do it alone, so why do we think we have to?  I was just reading an article about some of the most successful CEOs in the world, and one of the traits they universally share is the ability to choose a good team and to delegate.  They know who and how to ask for help and this is not a weakness but a testament to their wisdom and strength.

In Awakening Shakti we learn that “The grace of the goddess is a 2 way stream.  There’s the movement from the subtle - the movement of grace descending into the human world.  But it can’t land unless there is a calling from below.  It can take different forms – mantra repetition, meditation, prayer – but the calling has to be there."  Help is often hidden and yet always there.  The great work of yoga is to soften out of your own self-consciousness and self-effort and open to help from beyond. 

Off the Mat:
Where are the places in your life where you feel stuck, in a rut, stagnant?  Durga summons the other goddesses into the world to help her fight the battle of her life – who do you need to summon?  What do you need to ask for to get you where you need to go?  If you don’t know, just giving voice to the not-knowing often leads to the answer.

On the Mat:
In my classes this week we are working on backbends. Asking for help requires a certain degree of humility, of finding the balance of self-love (individual) and Self-love (universal).   In the body this can be felt through the actions moving the shoulders back to open up the upper back which is chronically stiff from both biomechanics and held stress, while simultaneously resisting the low ribs and belly back which for most of us is much more mobile and flexible.  Drawing the belly back mimics a posture of humility, helping us to more easily admit to what we need.  And once we are ok with that, then the work of opening up the heart happens, moving the back bend to the subtle upper back, which is so hard but so radically transformative.

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open To Grace:
Use your breath to create a fullness of the inner body and open the back body, softening out of any tough guy persona, and examine what needs to be asked for.
Open to the possibility that you don’t have to do it all alone, that you can ask for what you need to get you there and invite it in with the breath

Muscular Energy:
With the ferocity of Durga firm your leg muscles.
With the fierce desire to transform yourself, fire up every muscle.

Kidney Loop:
(Durga is known as the protector – when we draw the front ribs back before opening the heart we protect the low back during backbends.)
Draw the front ribs back, softening the self into the Self.
Resist the low belly up and back, creating a new pattern of self-discovery and transformation.

Organic Energy:
Let the brilliant light of the Goddess come to you and enliven and brighten your inner fire.
Let the fiery shakti of Durga radiate through you and take the form of your pose.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cosmic Hide and Seek

My two-year-old, Rakhi, is just starting to get into hide and seek.  There are parameters to this new game: he won’t hide alone, he has to have a brother with him while the other one searches.  He only wants to be found, he doesn’t want to be the seeker.  And he hides in the same place, every time.

Hide and seek mimics a “game” the Absolute “plays” with us.  The One, in choosing to become the diverse world of all beings, conceals or disguises Itself in the form of everything in creation – this is called tirodhana.  Unity is disguised as multiplicity.  We, as embodied beings, have forgotten that the “stuff” that we are created from is the same “stuff” that has pulsed in and out of being since the dawn of creation.  And hence our experience on this physical plane is one of separation.

Why does the Absolute need to conceal Itself at all?   For the same reason Rakhi hides – for the utter anticipation, joy and connection of being found (or so the resounding shrieks through my house when this game is being played would suggest).  Why does he do it again and again?  Because it’s fun!  This is essentially the nature of life itself.  The Divine conceals itself merely for the pleasure of finding Itself again and again through the power of anugraha, meaning revelation or grace.  It’s like that old maxim, “absence makes the heart grow fonder”.   When we have been separated from our beloved the union is so much sweeter afterwards. This is the innate nature of our entire existence, why we come into being at all - simply for the joy of remembering who we really are.

Yoga is the practice of experiencing the formless through form.  It is one of the ways we remember.  This is why embodied practices are so important - if we are not remembering, we are unhappy because we continue to feel separate and disconnected.   It is through this embodied and therefore limited form that we are able to see beyond limitation and form to our essential nature: unity, pure awareness, and unbroken joy. We use our embodiment as a vehicle for discovering and rediscovering the divine essence that is at the core of our being.  

The reason yoga is called a practice is because we do it again and again.  The Divine act of tirodhana makes us forget.  Yoga brings us to anugraha, to a state of remembering.   

Just like Rakhi's game, there really isn't a mystery - grace is hiding in the same place she always is, but we have to actively seek.  Each time we find her, we remember a little more clearly how to get there the next time. 
In her book Awakening Shakti, Sally Kempton quotes the eco-cosmologist (I’m actually not even sure what that is, but read on!) Brian Swimme: “The universe story is our story, our bodies are made up of split-off particles of star-stuff, the breath we breathe has been breathed by every being that has ever lived.”  She goes on to say “A Tantrika takes it even further.  Our awareness is not only connected to the power of awareness in other creatures, but it is also a miniature version of the great awareness that is the Source of all that is.  The subtle worlds that lie between the transcendent vastness and the physical universe are also inside our own subtle bodies, ready to be experienced by anyone who has the stamina and grace to enter into the inner world of the heart.”

Are you ready to enter the inner world of the heart??   I am listening deeply for those shrieks of delight.

Off the Mat:
This week was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and it is a good reminder of the ways that humanity concealed the unity shining through the diversity, and how far we’ve come as a people in allowing that light to be revealed through all beings.  It’s not that way in all the world yet though, so every time you come to your mat, offer the yogic light you create to shine out beyond the studio or room you are practicing in, beyond the towns and cities in our country, to all the places in the world where the light is even more concealed.  Whatever moment of grace or wonder or peace you are able to connect with during your practice, let that moment awaken you to the power of anugraha so that you may help shine the light of consciousness wherever it might be needed.

On the Mat:
In my classes this week we worked on finding the balance between waking up to our inner essence through Muscular Energy and engagement, especially the inner thighs which tend to be weak and "asleep".  Once we feel that inner connection, we can let the light of awareness shine through the pose in the form of Organic Energy.  It is the balance of these two essential energies of the body that creates strength, radiance and beauty in our bodies and our poses. 

For the Anusara junkies:
Open to Grace:
Breathe in and let the subtle inner body fill with all the aspects of yourself you cannot see yet you know are there.
(As you step into poses) Place sacred feet on sacred earth - aligning the feet to align with Source within and without, that takes the form of all of creation including you. 

Muscular Energy: 
(this energy is a co-participating w/divinity – engaging muscles to engage with Source)
Wake up your inner thighs to wake up to your inner essence of unity, pure awareness, and unbroken joy.
Firm your muscles to affirm your own unique embodiment of the Divine Source.
When we engage skin to muscle to bone we engage with what is concealed to our eyes (from what we can see to what we can’t) and remember that we are much more than just skin, muscle and bone.

Organic Energy:
Shine the light of the Absolute through the vehicle of your body.
Let the pose reveal the Grace that is your highest bliss.
Let Grace reveal itself through you, in the form of the pose you are in.

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