Tuesday of this week was Makar Sankranti, the day when Spring returns to India. As Tim Miller noted in his blog this week, it is one of the few Hindu holidays to follow the solar, not lunar, cycle. A little more from Timji:
The days are visibly getting longer now and the Sun is coming into its waxing period of strength for the next six months. In India this is considered to be one of the most auspicious days of the year, associated with regeneration. During the month of Makara, Surya, the Sun, is visiting his son, Shani’s (Saturn’s), house because Shani is the ruling planet of Makara. Normally Surya and Shani don’t get along well, but for the next month there is an opportunity for fathers and sons to connect at a more harmonious and beneficial level. In the Mahabharata, Makar Sankranti is the day that Bhishma, grandfather of the Pandavas, made his exit from the world of men and returned to the land of the Devas.
If you’re unfamiliar with that part of the story, you should remedy that! Just kidding. If you haven’t read Ramesh Menon’s re-telling, he does an amazing job of capturing Bhisma’s agony but also calm as he awaits for an auspicious time for his life to end.
I’m pretty sure I’ve relayed the story that I first read Bhisma’s passing by Menon while in Tulum for Tim’s week-long training. Talk about an auspicious time! It was made even more moving by all the hard study, heart-opening and ragged emotions of the week.
You can get the quick version from Tim this week. He even put up a Part II on Wednesday afternoon that focuses on history’s only two “real” yogis.
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.
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!
In a few hours, our little car will be packed full of a week’s worth of yoga outfits; hiking clothes and gear; multiple yoga rugs and mats; and bottles of wine to share at dinner.
Then we’ll hit the road for the 600-mile trip to Mt. Shasta for our week with Tim Miller.
That means it’s been a year since we last made that trek. And while I’ll admit I’m as excited as can be about the coming week, it’s really because of that week a year ago.
For me, Mt. Shasta in August of 2010 was when “it” all clicked.
At the risk of showing my hand too much as a “newbie,” I’m not hard pressed to trace my Ashtanga timeline. Dabbling with some classes (as well as some flow ones) for a few years as part of the overall exercise program, a couple of days of workshops with Tim (I’ll share my first Tim story at some point, I’m sure) during that … and then a slow, but inevitable move toward more and more yoga, less and less running and lifting weights.
In March of 2010, David Swenson came to Los Angeles for a two-day workshop. I just did the first day (I mean, second series, come on, get real!), and some of the seeds he tossed my way clearly sprouted. But I don’t think they ever were going to grow into mighty trees on their own.
Two months later, Danny Paradise swung through town. That definitely watered what David had left (especially the pranayama). And it was about that time that the local yoga studio began offering a morning Mysore program that I actually could get to, and not just one from 4 to 6 p.m.
Things are starting to click at this point.
And then Bobbie throws the eephus ball. “We should go to Shasta.”
We’d heard about Shasta from various friends and teachers, and Bobbie by now had gone through both Tim’s Tulum retreat and his two-week first series training. She was familiar with Tim. Me? Not so much.
But, as they say, the teacher comes when the student is ready. And everything was conspiring to make me ready.
So… I was game. What was the worst thing that could happen, right? (I actually had a pretty thorough list.)
This is where I think I have to step back and add some more details: I’m pretty pragmatic, pretty regular, pretty mainstream. In Tulum, Tim referred to me, nicely I’m sure, as the “archetypical stiff white guy.” You probably can hold that image with you for reference; just give me the benefit of the doubt that the worst 10%, maybe 20%, of what that means to you doesn’t apply to me. I don’t hunt or spend all my fall Sundays watching football, for instance.
But going off for a week to a yoga retreat? That doesn’t really fit my profile.
But off I went, anyway. Sometimes you just have to go, right?
Here’s the second spot where I need to step back. This is where it gets difficult to put into words the “yoga experience,” in part because I’m loathe to do so in the terminology you often see – how something manifested, descriptions of bliss, talk of chakras, you know what I mean. Again, this is just me – there’s nothing wrong with any of that (I kind of wish I could use those words, but those words still don’t come naturally for me). One of the things that attract me to Tim is how he is able to talk about yoga, yoga philosophy and his experiences in such plain, simple terms. Swenson is that way, too.
How then, do I describe the Shasta experience?
I’m still, honestly, working on that. (Another intent behind this blog; help put “it” all into concrete words.) Something, definitely, “moved,” though. I’m mean, I’m there singing the Hanuman Chalisa, I’m hanging on every word of the Mahabharata, I’m working my butt off on my mat. Something’s happening, right?
And we get to Saturday morning, the week’s end. It is time for what Tim calls – obviously jokingly – “the circle of tears.” Everyone gathers to sum up their week.
And it’s going fine. People are sliding what amounts to a “talking stick” across the floor and taking their turns. (That “talking stick?” A box of tissue, but totally unused.)
Then, to not give anything personal away about someone else, the person before me goes, and the story is incredible. Really moving. Scary even. (Those there last year will remember who I’m talking about, I’m sure.)
So, of course, I think this is the perfect time for me to talk.
That decision may prove that along with being an “archetypical stiff white guy,” I’m not too bright.
I am sure I don’t make it 20 seconds before I’m the one to start blubbering. Me. We’re a quarter, maybe a third of the way through the “circle of tears” and I’m the one to help it live up to its name.
The goodbyes and farewells stay more teary after that, although a lot of people hold it together. (Maybe the ones who keep coming back!)
After it was all over, I think I went up to Tim with every intent of apologizing. How could I do otherwise?
And what does he say? “Well, now we know that Steve has gooey insides.”
Again, I’ll repeat: Great.
So, how do I describe the Shasta experience? It was a constant, painless (maybe even delightful) tap, tap, tapping on my hard, outer shell, an attempt to break that away and let the “gooey insides” out.
These fissures on my shell only got significantly more apparent and wide and gapping during my week with Tim in Tulum. There’s a certain “coming apart” that easily can happen during practice. Maybe in surya namaskara. Perhaps in supta kurmasana. Almost for sure in urdhva dhanurasana.
How and why, I’m still not sure. I just know it is happening. And because I won’t have to go into work after I’m done practicing – or do anything other than nurture what happens on the mat, and hike, and drink wine with dinner and friends – there’s no telling what might happen in Shasta this time.
So for those with us, friends and people we are about to meet, my apologies in advance.
You might notice, looking at the schedule (or, for that matter, the Confluence website), that there’s a good deal of philosophy woven into the subject matter. The last day of the Confluence, Eddie and Tim will be discussing Patanjali’s Sutra II.44: “’Swadyaya Ishta Devata Samprayogaha’ – Union with the chosen deity comes from the study of self through the sacred texts.”
Although I’ve been pouring over the Yoga Sutras for years now, it wasn’t until Tim’s Mt. Shasta retreat last year that I found a real fire for the classics of Indian literature.
Tim closes every evening session with a story, and last year he read the first few chapters of The Mahabharata, translated by Ramesh Menon. I ordered it as soon as I got home, and could not put the it down. It was better than the best epic fiction I’d ever read, beautifully paced, with glamour, love, death, and redemption. I was hooked. That led me to Menon’s sensitive and elegant translation of The Ramayana. And of The Siva Purana. Then The Bhagavata Purana. I can’t stop reading the guy.
Let me give you an example of his style:
The Demon rode in Brahma’s flashing chariot, yoked to unearthly steeds; though Rama’s bow steamed fire, Ravana was never in one place so they could find their mark. Quick as wishes, his chariot bore the Lord of evil over land and though the air.
That’s some breathless prose! Steaming fire: a fantastic and impossible image, perfect for Rama’s bow!
There are many virtues to Menon’s method of translating, but the best part is its ease of reading. Menon subtitled The Mahabharata, “a modern rendering.” “Rendering” a great word for it—boiling it down to its essential elements. The Ramayana he subtitles, “a modern retelling.” Menon knows how to bring the action alive, as in this excerpt, while still keeping its symbolic meaning (which he leaves to the reader to discover). He keeps the ancient and epic flavor without alienating a contemporary reader.
His renditions of the important figures of each epic are sympathetic and also awesome. Rama is brave, but sorrow-struck. Hanuman’s devotion develops over time, and his humility is touching, a model for us all: “Forgive me,” he says to Rama, “I am a monkey and my curiosity gets the better of me.” In The Mahabharata, Menon fleshes out Krishna so well, The Bhagavad Gita will come alive for you, a moving conversation between God and his disciple (it’s at the start of volume two).
The act of a translator is never easy, and Menon knows when to translate, when to leave the original alone—his meaning is clear in context (sometimes it’s a “chariot,” sometimes a “ratha,” depending on his purpose). But both the Mahabharata and Ramayana come with glossaries in the back to help the reader with the Sanskrit, as well as the huge cast of characters and deities.
Like me, you may not be able to stop with these two epics. The Confluence will begin with a puja to Ganesh. Menon has a starkly beautiful account of Ganesh’s origins in his translation of The Siva Purana that explains Ganesh’s role as the Lord of Obstacles. There’s also the two-volume Bhagavata Purana, the complete story of Vishnu (which I’m reading now). And a translation of The Devi Bhagavatam waits for me on the shelf.
If you get started now, you may be done by the time Eddie and Tim discuss “Swadyaya Ishta Devata Samprayogaha.” And, boy, will you have studied the ancient texts!