An Om Gum Ganapataye Namaha for Ganesh Chaturthi

To keep your celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi going, here’s a version of Om Gum Ganapataye Namaha from last week’s Bhakti Fest:

Why that one? Because one of the singer, Prajna Vieira, was along on our yatra last summer. (And yes, she has a website. And, yes, I expect her to re-post this on the social media.)

Posted by Steve

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

Removing your Super Bowl obstacles

Due to a long day of travel, I’m a little behind on this… it feels like the Super Bowl already is fading from memory.

But we couldn’t not pass this story on, via USA Today:

When Tom Brady reached his locker, about an hour after victory and a series of interviews, he was done talking to the news media. But his locker spoke for him.

Prominently displayed was was a four-inch bronze elephant-headed statue — Ganesha, the Hindu God. Or as Brady quietly told a vistor, “The remover of obstacles.”


Ganesha illustrates the spiritual side of his psyche developed with trainer and adviser Alex Guerrero. But the spiritual is coupled by mental commitment, evidence by more items in his locker.


Brady walked into into the cool night air and toward the team bus with impeccable style.

At that point, Brady could not be lured in even by talk of the remover of obstacles.

“No Ganesha,” he said with a grin.

It was an obstacle — one Brady’s locker removed.

There’s a picture of his locker at this link to a Yahoo story about the game.

Posted by Steve

Here are the full details on the next Namarupa Yatra

This looks great.

As we’ve said.

And, sure, it might seem like we are over-selling the next Namarupa Yatra — Yatra Divine — but it is only because our experience was so significant.

The full trip for summer of 2014 to the northern parts of India is up and available. The link, which includes how to reserve your spot (hint: it involves $108), is right here. A few highlights:

Sunday June 29 ~ Puri – Lord Jagannath Rath Yatra

Witness the largest chariot festival in all of India. Lord Jagannath, his brother Lord Baladeva and their sister Goddess Subhadra are seated on massive colorful chariots that thunder along the street pulled by thousands of devotees.

Thursday July 3 ~ Varanasi

We will perform the Panchatirthi Pilgrimage. Beginning at the southern end where Asi River meets the Ganga before dawn we will walk all along the Ganga Chats to the northernmost end where Varana River flows into the Ganga and then enter the heart of the city for darshan of Lord Vishvanath, Annapurna Devi and Sakshi Binayaka. We will perform sankalpa and worship at Five Tirthas.

Tuesday July 8 ~ via Gupta Kashi to Gaurikund

After morning class we will continnue higher via Gupta Kashi where Lord Siva his from the Pandavas. Halt for the night at Gaurikund where Parvati did tapas to win the heart of Lord Siva. Here there are hot sulphur baths and temples to Gauri Devi and Sirkata Ganesha, the place where Ganesha got his elephant’s head.

That’s just a taste. There also will be an opportunity to meditate at the samadhi shrine of H.H. Sri Swami Sivananda, witness the abhishekam of one of the 12 Jyotirlingams and, of course, plenty of asana. (“Morning class” starts most days.)

As Bobbie said to me over the weekend when we got word of the full itinerary: “Well, it looks like we’re going back to India.”

Yes it does.

Posted by Steve

Om gam ganapate namah

Eddie Stern from the 2012 Confluence. Photo by Michelle Haymoz of
Eddie Stern from the 2012 Confluence. Photo by Michelle Haymoz of .

Things were warmer by the bay this year, than last, but still brisk.

Lots of polar fleece. Beenies. Scarves.

We were in our doti and sari because, really, when else are you going to be able to wear them?

As with the 2012 Confluence, Eddie Stern’s Ganesha puja has set the tone for the weekend. The stage is sanctified, the way is open. But will there be no challenges?

Doubtful. As Eddie said at one point, the obstacles are there so when you get past them, you’ve learned something. What we will learn this weekend awaits.

As always, it was amazing to hear Eddie’s clear and musical sanskrit chanting. And not without elucidation and interpretation along the way. Those of us not fluent in sanskrit then know what’s being said, and what we all are saying.

The teachers were all on the stage with Eddie, and with their families. And they participated, representing us in the puja.

A funny moment — and if you remember last year’s Confluence or our coverage, you know that funny moments are pretty central to the weekend — came as Eddie rattled through Ganesha’s 108 names. It was Tim Miller’s job to offer flowers for each one.

Effectively, what that means is each time Eddie said, “Namo,” Tim was supposed to toss a flower to Ganesha.

Well, with a bit of a time constraint and dinner awaiting the 300 or so people participating, not to mention Eddie’s fluency, Eddie moved through the names at a pretty magnificent clip. Tim didn’t quite keep up, but they both got through it.

Eddie, we must say — and, as we often note, we are certainly biased — has a wonderfully balanced presentation, grounded at times in the grosser world — he illustrated the non-verbal communication involved in the ritual (and in our lives) with hand gestures including the Hawaiian “hang loose” — and at others in a learned, subtle one. He chanted the sanskrit for us all, but also brought everyone along. It’s not an easy thing.

Once the puja is completed, a symbolic representation of Ganesha in tumeric form is taken to the water and all its blessings are sent out in to the world, into the universe. The Confluence participants followed Eddie to the bay’s edge, chanting, “Om gam ganapate namah“. Yes, tourists (and probably locals) snapped photos and took video.

With a loud “Jai!” Eddie threw the Ganesha into the water, and our Confluence was under way. (It should be noted, Eddie again waded into the cold and somewhat funky bay.)

And then, more conversations and reunions with friends we haven’t seen in a year, or maybe in just a few weeks. And some dinner.

Tomorrow morning, Led class with Dena Kingsberg awaits at 7 a.m.

And a final thought. Last year, we watched, with wonder and delight, as Eddie chanted Ganesha’s 108 names. This year, we knew what arati is, and we reached out our hands for enlightenment, and brought our hands to our eyes so we could see more clearly.

We looked into the eyes of Ganesha, and Ganesha saw us. Everything was different now, as we prayed with Eddie.

Posted by Bobbie and Steve

Of Ashtanga and tattoos

A while back, Steve wrote a post wondering, What’s up with yoga and tattoos?

Yesterday, while my friend, painter, tattoo artist, and fellow Ashtangi Kim Saigh was working her magic on my back in the form of padparascha lotuses, I had plenty of time to think about it.

I can’t really say I got my first tattoo before it was cool, but it was close. I was in grad school in Seattle, in 1990. It was the land of freaks,

My back, courtesy Michelle Haymoz.
My back, courtesy Michelle Haymoz.

tats, piercing, and branding, so it’s not like it was strange when I got one. The second one was with Steve, also in Seattle. As many people with a tattoo habit will tell you, things just kind of went from there. I don’t know that I’ve ever stopped to think about why.

But as Kim and I were chatting about the practice (she’s a student of Confluence assistant, Noah Williams), I began to wonder if there was a philosophical connection between Western yoga practitioners and tattoos. I’m not the first to wonder—The New York Times did a story on it. While it was a dramatic photo essay, it didn’t really tell us much about the connection between yoga and tattoos.

Of course, all I know is Ashtanga. When it comes to that, the easy answer is pain. Tim Miller’s now famous comment that Ashtanga is “the yoga of no” offers a clue. There’s no doubt that Ashtangis can take a lot of pain. It was Ashtanga that taught me to be non-reactive to the chronic pain I was experiencing, so that I could pass through it. When Kim is digging away at my back with a needle full of ink, I have pretty solid control on my fight-or-flight response because of what Ashtanga has taught me.

There is also the great lexicon of gorgeous and meaningful iconography that Hindu thought offers. Those of you who will be coming to the Confluence will see a room full of Sanskrit, Shivas, Hanumans, Durgas, and Ganeshas.

But that, of course, brings up the question of understanding. I know just enough Sanskrit to read my own tattoos, but that doesn’t mean that I understand them. Sanskrit is a beautiful written language, both linear and sinuous, which is definitely appealing. The Sanskrit on my body I consider a reminder, a prompt. And I draw great solace from the Ganesha Nataraj on my back. He is a metaphor of me, and for me. But do I understand the true nature of the sacred meaning of both these things, the language and the deity?

Probably not. I remember when I was traveling in Morocco, explaining a tattoo to Berber goat herders who were on a bus with me. They were fascinated, but also horrified. And my orthodox Jewish friends may admire them, but they would never have a tattoo. I understand that an image of Ganesha is Ganesha, and should be treated as such—which will lead me to keep it covered as we travel in India. There is, in other words, something of the profane in having it. That may be the most revealing aspect of sacred images as tattoos. They are possible because of my position as an outsider on a faith that I am only beginning to realize.

They are also an act of defiance of social order, a punk rock marker. This may not be as true as it used to be, of course; there was a pretty clean break between my generation (the tenth, sometimes called “Gen X”) and the ones before us: Tattoos were working class, and for men. Something happened that allowed college professors and businessmen to have tattoos. But there’s still…hesitation. While walking by a group of prospective students on campus one day last quarter, I heard one of them say, “I just saw a professor with a tattoo!”—as if this were in any way subversive. It may be, but not in the ways it used to be.

I’d argue the defiance is not so much in having them as in getting them—it’s a declaration of (sometimes nostalgic) values, and of endurance. So as such, it’s an act of pride, maybe even exhibitionism.

Which, of course, is a paradox when it comes to yoga. My Ganesha is supposed to represent my surrender to Ganesha, but He also represents my pride in having Him there, just visible over my collar.

In one of His hands, my tattoo Ganesha holds a noose. There He is behind me, forever trying to capture and contain those barriers to my liberation, and forever failing.

Posted by Bobbie

Happy Ganesha Chaturthi–Honoring the Lord of Obstacles

The Irish poet W.B. Yeats was active right at the turn of the 20th century, when people like Harry Houdini and Madam Blavatsky were experimenting with what falls under the general name of “mysticism.” They paved the way in the West for the early foundations of yoga. One evening, Yeats’s wife tried “automatic writing,” channeling a spirit and answering, in writing, the questions of a seeker. Yeats was stunned by the results, and when he asked “the spirits” if he should spend his life deciphering their messages, the answer his wife wrote was, “No. We come to bring you metaphors for poetry.” The result was his book, A Vision.

A Vision gave Yeats a way to believe in his own imaginative vision. But he also wrote,

Some will ask if I believe all that this book contains, and I will not know how to answer. Does the word belief, used as they will use it, belong to our age? Can I think of the world as there and I here judging it?

He dodged the question by asking, Is it necessary that I believe? Think of Carl Jung’s statement: “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.”

This week marks the celebration among believers of Ganesha Chaturthi—Ganesha’s birthday. In India, particularly in the South, it’s a ten-day celebration of the Son of Siva and Pavarti, the Lord of Obstacles, God of Wisdom, Ekadanta (“One Toothed”), The Elephant Faced one.

I learned as part of my Ashtanga practice that it would be a good idea to consider the benefits of self study as a regular part of my practice, and to also consider that it might help to surrender my practice to a deity. “Each time you practice mula bandha,” Guruji told Tim Miller, “do it as an offering to Ganesh.” I also know, through my study, that Patanjali says,

Self study promotes union with one’s chosen deity.
Perfect absorption is possible through surrender to the Divine.

Svadhyayat istadevata samprayogah
Samadhi sidhi isvara praidhanat (II.44-5)

Ganesha, it should be said, is my istadevata, my chosen diety, my one point of focus when seeking the Divine. I came from Irish

Jai, Ganesha! Via

Catholic stock, although not from a devout family, so I’ve had to learn to do the most basic mental exercises of faith. My route to Ganesha was circuital, and my relationship with Him is complicated. I’m only beginning to learn the real complexities of belief, even though, as an American, it’s said I live in a “religious” country. It has been Ganesha that has removed the obstacles to belief for me (and placed others).

He has helped in the physical, asana practice: It’s Ganesha that I chose to have tattooed on my back, to allow me a place to focus my imagination in the geography of my back pain–a displacement of focus, maybe.

If you would ask why Ganesha, it seemed natural to me to address the Lord of Obstacles in order to find the wisdom of their placement (or absence) when it comes to understanding God.

But belief is and probably always will be an essentially imaginative act for me. Like Yeats, to some extent “belief” doesn’t even enter the equation. You could say that Ganesha gives me metaphors for belief. But because my belief in metaphors is so strong, that I see a metaphor as an imaginative equals sign that’s also quite literal, it becomes something tantamount to belief: Poetic faith.

I recognize, in other words, that as I do puja to Ganesha, as I offer my prayers to him, I am essentially offering my prayers in the forms of the human imagination to a form of the human imagination, which I see as the highest Good. It’s the forms of the human imagination that bring us to Union, or at least a kind of concordance, with the vast landscape of the Divine.

Om gam ganapataye namaha.

Posted by Bobbie

Are you ready to honor Ganesh and the Divine Mother?

A few days ago, I was tempted to post Eddie Stern’s latest blog update. I resisted because it was this:

Way Behind

by ayny Posted on August 25, 2012

I am so far behind on my posts, I don’t even know where to begin.Maybe I’ll wait till tomorrow…

Now there’s something a bit more worth your notice, especially if you are in or around the New York area:

The Ganesh Festival at the Broome Street Temple is just around the corner. From Eddie’s post (and the Temple’s email):

September begins the festival season at the Broome Street Temple, starting with Ganesh Chaturthi from September 15th to 19th.  During the fall season the days shorten, and we naturally become more quiet, inward and reflective. Ganesh, with his small eyes and trunk of discrimination, symbolizes our reflective nature, and removes the obstacles that cloud our consciousness that prevent our inward journey towards Self-knowledge. He is therefore also regarded as the bestower of the wisdom that accompanies inner reflection.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that after her two weeks training with Tim Miller, Bobbie’s going to embrace Ganesh Chaturthi more fully than ever this year. She has a whole series of Ganesh mantras that Eddie sent her, so she is prepared.

In addition at the Broome Street Temple (and everywhere), there’s also Devi Navaratri, honoring the Divine Mother, and then Deepavali, the festival of lights.

Via AYNY, Abhayankara Maha Ganapati, installed by Guruji, September 26th, 2001

Here’s what I really want to pass on, though, and apologies for plain old taking so much of AYNY’s post, but this is good, good stuff:

There are three levels that all of these festivals, and all spiritual practices, address: personal, elemental and collective.

* On the personal level, we devote ourselves to internal purification, clarification of our intentions, and intensify our spiritual practices;

* On the elemental level, we see that we are an intricately woven part of the natural world, and therefore strive to respect and care for nature and our planet;

* On a collective level, we strengthen our understanding that at our core we are one, unified field of consciousness, and through mantra, ritual, yoga and other practices, seek to move beyond differences to a state of wholeness, compassion and understanding.

When we chant ‘Om Shanti Shanti Shantihi’ at the end of our prayers, we are acknowledging these three levels.

That strikes me as a concise and precise reminder of the “goal” (if you will) of our yoga practices. As one who struggles with how my yoga practice is supposed to affect my existence in the world (should you be political, do you need to “get off your mat and into the world,” etc.), this is a clear way of thinking about how I should approach the larger world that’s greater than my sense of I.

I’ll also note this: “Our special additions to the schedule this year include Veda chanting and arati on Pier 40 at the Hudson River to inaugurate the festival on Saturday the 15th, from 4-6 pm, and the Ganesh Utsav procession on Wednesday the 19th, at 6 pm.” And a final note, these festivities do shut down AYNY, so if you were planning to visit and practice, check out the AYNY web page for more details.

At the Confluence next year, we all obviously have to process across the street and down the beach to the Pacific during the opening ceremony, right?

One final, final note: I see at Yoga Workshop that applications for the 2013 month-long intensive with Richard Freeman will be available Monday, Nov. 26.

Posted by Steve

“The Fascination of What’s Difficult”

There's a dance party in my head, and you're invited. Dancing Ganesha, from the Norton Simon museum.

Today is my birthday. Because it falls around Thanksgiving, I’m used to a sort of mixture of remorse (for what I ate), gratitude (it is a day to give thanks, after all), and a deep sense of my own mortality (a natural by-product of all birthdays over 30).

And with all the Ashtanga news lately being totally preoccupied with things that are most decidedly not one of the Eight Limbs (whether or not it makes you skinny, whether or not it’s from the Devil–that sort of silliness), it’s part of my contrary nature to take stock of my own vanity.

It’s true that I didn’t come to the practice to deepen my connection with the universe or learn Vedic philosophy. But it wasn’t to get skinny, either. I had early onset degeneration and arthritis and was trying to beat back death (see earlier sense of mortality, but I was in my 20s). Ashtanga was the only practice where the teacher never told me to “stop when it hurts.” Everything hurt. I felt, instinctually that I needed to do it, even if every forward fold was excruciating. Steve remembers all the times I would come home from practice, weeping.

Now a new study out of Northwestern University is suggesting I’ve made the right choice. (NPR did a story on it this morning–very timely.) Those of us who practice in pain are doing the right thing.

It’s not like there was never any doubt. You might check out this poem by W.B. Yeats, the poem of my title above, to see what that’s like. But it was the philosophy of yoga, and Ashtanga in particular, that got me through it, and still does. Reading Ramesh Menon’s translations of the great Indian epics, classic translations of the Upanishads, the poetry, and learning to connect to the divine through the image and stories of Ganesha, the Lord of Obstacles.

What’s a goal? Me and my ego still have long discussions over my second series practice (I hear Tim in my head: “Avoidance is not the answer”). I try hard to remember the whole journey. Every time I put my hands together over my head in a suryanamaskar, there’s a little party in my head, a little dance (I couldn’t do that when I was 28). I suppose you could say that’s vanity. Or demonic. Maybe, though, it’s more “daemonic,” in the ancient Greek sense, a moment that belongs to the intermediary between me and the universe. Whatever it is, it makes me smile, even on the day I complete my 47th year.

Posted by Bobbie