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 exoticindia.com

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

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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

Eddie Stern performs a Ganesha puja

Sorry for two video posts in a row, but I thought this one was interesting. (And I love, love — like high school relationship love — Bobbie’s from earlier.)

Here’s Eddie Stern talked about mother nature, during a Ganesha puja, in Portugal. When I found it, it had only 30-something views. So I figure not too many of you have seen it as it is from just a few weeks ago.

If you want, when he mentions taking a minute for a silent prayer, feel free to do so.

Posted by Steve

The meanings of Ganesha

During one of his discussions of Patanjali’s sutras, Tim Miller observed that one’s ishta devata–the aspect of the divine chosen for contemplation–should be “a role model.” Since we’re in the midst of Ganesha Chaturthi (which Tim blogs about this week), I thought I’d ponder my own ishta devata, Ganesha.

Vyasa dictating to Ganesha on a wall in Angkor Wat, via Wikipedia

The ishta devata is the access point for the seeker, the face or facet of the unfathomable that allows us a way in, so to speak. The “in” is into ourselves and our universal nature, with the goal to see the eternal in yourself: “Thou art that,” you are the deity and the deity is you. Because I have something of a scholarly past, and because I’m a teacher, the aspect of Ganesha I most adore is Ekadanta–“single tusk.”

Here’s the story I love the most: The great sage Vyasa was preparing to compose The Mahabharata. Realizing the enormity of the task, he asked Ganesha to be his scribe. Ganesha readily agreed, provided it be done all at one sitting. It quickly became clear that an ordinary pen would not work, so rather than interrupt the poet’s stream of thought, Ganesha broke off his tusk and used it as his pen.

There are, of course, a ton of stories about how Ganesha broke his tusk, but this is my favorite. It’s my favorite because it presents such a different point of view of the poet than what I grew up with and studied. In that tradition, the poet is “possessed by the Muse,” sometimes even in a narcotic haze, a vehicle for the external. Here, God sits at the poet’s side, blank pages before Him, tusk in hand, waiting to hear the words of a human (albeit enlightened) sage.

So you find images of Ganesha, head cocked as if listening to Vyasa, broken tusk at the ready to copy down all that he hears with his great ears. Happy Ganesha Chaturthi! Jai, Ganesha!

Posted by Bobbie

Timji on self-realization and Ganesha

Tim Miller has his latest blog post up. Two excerpts, but visit here to get the whole 10 yards of goodness. (Back at his blog, so no need for a Facebook page.)

One:

In these two sutras, from the chapter called “Kaivalyapada” (the chapter on liberation), Patanjali suggests that all that we require in the process of Self-Realization is already within us, and that our work consists in removing the obstacles that prevent this natural process from happening.   This is what our yoga practice is for—to teach us how to get out of our own way so we can allow our evolutionary process to unfold with ease and grace.

And:

In India, every important undertaking begins with a prayer to Ganesha.  During Ganesha Chaturthi, these prayers become particularly powerful.  Ganesha is also known as the Lord of Thresholds, representing the face of change which dawns with every new situation we encounter in life.  He stands at the gateway of perception, opening us to the vital, intuitive mind, allowing us to face change with progressive choices that guide our destiny in a positive way and release us from the stagnant patterns of the past.  Thus, Ganesha is also the lord of Astrology.

And with that, I’m off to practice.

AYNY preps for Ganesh Chaturthi celebration

Ganesh image via Exoticindia.com

I’ve been hearing from my reliable sources that Ashtanga Yoga New York was going to be closed the first week of September for a Ganesh celebration. Now the word is official at Eddie Stern’s Internet home. It’s an understandable moment when the Broome Street Temple takes clear precedence over AYNY.

(I can understand how the typical Type A Ashtangi might be annoyed, though. Two words: Home practice.)

The AYNY page gives a wonderfully succinct rundown on Ganesh, which probably is a taste of what we can expect when Eddie and Tim Miller talk about their respective Ishta Devatas during next year’s Ashtanga Yoga Confluence. Here’s a bit:

Ganesha’s head symbolizes the Atman or the soul, which is the ultimate supreme reality of human existence, and his human body signifies Maya or the earthly existence of human beings. The elephant head denotes wisdom and its trunk represents Om, the sound symbol of cosmic reality. In his upper right hand Ganesha holds a goad, which helps him propel mankind forward on the eternal path and remove obstacles from the way. The noose in Ganesha’s left hand is a gentle implement to capture all difficulties.

It goes on to give a couple of stories of how Ganesh got his elephant head and a few other pieces of information on the Hindu deity who has to be the most popular here in the U.S.