Ashtanga, Poetry, and Ganesha’s Eyebrow

On our home altar we have a murti of Ganesha that I got a number of years ago. This is the Ganesha who received Vyasa’s dictation of the Mahabharata. He is standing contrapposto with his notebook in one hand and his broken tusk in the other. If you don’t know the story, it’s Ganesha who wrote down the epic, and so inspired was Vyasa that when the pen broke, Ganesha snapped off his own tusk and used it instead so as not to interrupt the poet. His hand with tusk is poised lightly just above the page. His trunk hangs down in an elegantly relaxed “S.” He is looking at you, head tilted to one side, elephant ears perked, and something like a smile implied in his demeanor. Above one eye, his eyebrow is cocked, as if he is waiting for you to utter the next words…

I nearly emptied the bank account to buy this image of Ganesha. I loved it the instant I saw it, but I couldn’t tell you why, exactly, until today.

The summer means a break from teaching for me, and as a result I spend it writing as much poetry as I can. I try to make the most of each day. But here’s the thing about poetry writing. You can’t really clock in, sit down, crank out a bunch of words, and then clock out.

“If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree,” wrote John Keats, “it had better not come at all.”

That process is shrouded in mystery. In the West, it’s long been compared to demon possession (“daemons” in ancient Greece were in an intermediate state between god and human); or at the very least, to possession by the Muse, something poets ardently sought and tried to magically evoke at the start of their poems (“Sing, Muse…”). So, basically, I sit around and wait for inspiration. “Inspiration”: from the Latin inspirare, “divine guidance.” (Also, interestingly, another name for the inhalation breath.)

But I’m under a certain amount of pressure not to waste my time. To make the most of my leaf growing. When something magical doesn’t happen, I get pissed. Which in turn insures that something isn’t going to happen at all, and makes the whole non-process difficult. Which, as Keats noticed, it’s not supposed to be. But of course it is, in turn making me more pissed off.

This was not the case today, however. I sat down, and I waited without waiting, and something like poetry came. In the moments following that odd phenomenon of creation, there’s something like relief: “To me alone there came a thought of grief,” wrote Wordsworth, “A timely utterance gave that thought relief, / And again I am strong.”

When I was done, and the poetry pathways were clear, and the work of poetry was finished, I grumpily rolled out my mat to practice. Because, you know, that’s what we do.

Ashtanga, as has been noted, is also hard. Not particularly wanting to practice doesn’t make that any easier, and a deep-seated sense of insecurity about whether or not one should even be doing Ashtanga can make that difficulty…well, more difficult. Combine that with the fact that you know exactly what’s coming, and what’s coming is hard, and you encounter a lot of mental resistance. Which does not exactly get you ready for yoga in the greater sense of the word: The calm mind. I was not ready. But as I put my palms together for the opening mantra, I looked into Ganesha’s eye with its cocked eyebrow, and had a vision.

The vision took the form of a scene from the 1969 film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Sundance: [Cocking his gun for the fight.] “Ready?”

Butch: [Inspiration striking.] “No, we’ll jump.”

Sundance: [Looking down the cliff at the raging river below.] “Like hell we will.”

Butch: “No, we’ll be okay. If the water’s deep enough and we don’t get squished to death. They’ll never follow us.”

Sundance: “How do you know?”

Butch: “Would you make a jump like that if you didn’t have to?”

Sundance: “I have to and I’m not gunna.” [This is exactly the way I feel before I practice, by the way.] [Snip.]

Butch: “I’ll jump first.”

Sundance: “Nope.”

Butch: “Then you jump first.”

Sundance: “No I said!”

Butch: “What’s the matter with you?”

Sundance: “I CAN’T SWIM.” [Pause.]

Butch: [Laughing.] “Why, are you crazy? The fall’ll probably kill you!”

Unable to resist in the face of Paul Newman’s impeccable logic, Robert Redford shouts film’s most famous “Woooooah shiiiit!” as they jump together. End of vision.

Standing there on my mat, I was laughing. The very act of poetry writing is in essence impossible; the very act of trying to write a poem is in fact the very thing that will keep you from writing a poem, which suddenly seemed, in the eye of Ganesha, very much like the impossibility of Ashtanga. I laughed, and had a delirious practice. I fell into it, like I fall into a poem, because the fall will probably kill me. But it might not. There’s only one way to find out. This, I suppose, is what surrender feels like, and I’d been doing it all along as a poet.

My murti of Ganesha so captured my attention years ago because of course he embodies the perfect state of artistic surrender. He’s waiting to receive, without anticipation and without expectation. He’s prepared, but in no way suggesting that anything must be done with all that preparation. And it’s in the absence of all those things that inspiration comes.

Posted by Bobbie

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theconfluencecountdown

Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

3 thoughts on “Ashtanga, Poetry, and Ganesha’s Eyebrow”

  1. Bobbie, thanks for writing this. It lands in my inbox just as I’m poised to write research proposals, so it serves as a great reminder the trick is to create the space for inspiration to bubble up.

  2. Yes, the practice of yoga is more like a surrender to the process rather than the pursuing of definite goals. Thanks for writing!

  3. “The very act of poetry writing is in essence impossible; the very act of trying to write a poem is in fact the very thing that will keep you from writing a poem”: thank you for this. Thank you for reminding me to show up willing to write and to let go of my expectations of how it comes out. Such a lovely final paragraph here. Very poetic.

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