Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ravana Encounters Shiva

In honor of Shivaratri, a story from The Ramayana:

Listen Billy:

Once upon a time, in India...

Fresh off his victory over Indra, Ravana’s ten heads could barely contain his ego. “If heaven crumbled beneath my fists, I can easily destroy the god of destruction,” he reasoned. He headed directly toward Mount Kailash convinced he could best Shiva.

Approaching Mount Kailash, Ravana’s progress was impeded by a huge wall. Ravana stopped, confused.

A voice boomed like thunder. “No one is allowed on Mount Kailash while Lord Shiva sports with Parvati.”

Ravana’s ten heads scanned ten directions for the owner of the voice. Looking up, he saw the face of a bull poking through the clouds. The obstacle was not a wall, but Shiva’s bull, Nandin.

“Indra and the gods in heaven cower at my shadow. They run in fear at the sound of my voice. You are nothing but a steak waiting to be cooked for my dinner. Move before I call for my cook.”

Nandin scowled. “I could impale you on my horn and parade your dripping body through the streets of Lanka as easily as I swish flies with my tail. But Grandfather’s boon must prove true.” Nandin’s face twisted, contorted, blurred, then reformed as the face of a monkey. “Animals with faces like mine will mark your downfall.”

Ravana’s left eye and left arm throbbed. If he could not go up the mountain to Shiva, perhaps he could bring Shiva down the mountain.

“I will see you on my table, steak.” Ten heads spat at Nandin.
Ravana dug his twenty hands into the ground at the base of Mount Kailash. With little effort, he lifted the mountain over his ten heads and began to shake it.

At the summit of the mountain, Parvati held Shiva, shaking with fear. The great god Shiva smiled. He knew just who was responsible for this interruption, and he knew that he could not prove Brahma’s boon untrue.
But he could still teach Ravana some manners.

Shiva pressed his big toe ever so slightly into the ground, forcing the entire mountain back into place. Ravana was trapped. His immeasurable strength was nothing compared to Shiva’s.

Ravana knew he could not just wait until Shiva got bored and decided to do something else. The Lord of Meditation knew patience. The Lord of Meditation was also the Lord of Destruction. With Shiva pissed off and patient, Ravana was going nowhere for a very long time.

Shiva gets pissed off very easily, yet his mood can be changed very easily. Shiva appreciates a good song.
Ten heads hold a huge ego, which is bad, but they can sing a beautiful chorus. No one knows what song Ravana sang. If I was telling the story, and I am, I would say that he sang my favorite song about Shiva:
Hara Hara Mahadeva Shambho, Kashi Vishvanatha Gange.”

After a hundred years of hearing this song beautifully repeated, Shiva’s anger subsided enough for him to lift his toe, freeing Ravana. Ravana quickly beat feet.

Back in Lanka, considering himself safely out of Shiva’s earshot, Ravana declared (quietly, because he did not really believe he was out of earshot) that he faced Shiva and Shiva did not kill him, so Ravana must have won. His ten heads told this story to each other so many times that Ravana believed it. Satisfied that he bested the God of Destruction, Ravana considered himself the undisputed lord of the world.

While Ravana sang under Mount Kailash, the gods approached Vishnu.

“Brahma refuses to change his boon,” they whined, rubbing their bruised bodies. “You must do something.”
Vishnu thought. He knew Brahma’s boon protected Ravana against death from gods and celestials, but he did not ask for protection from humans and animals.

“Fear not. I have remembered what Ravana has forgotten. I will assume a human form, taking on all the limitations of the flesh. I must also assume the limitations of the human mind, forgetting my divine essence. I have put into motion a plan that will cause the destruction of the rakshasa Ravana.”

Vishnu disappeared from heaven and appeared in the womb of Kausala as the seed that would grow into Rama. The rest of the gods, not wanting to be left out of the fun, disappeared from heaven and appeared as seeds in the wombs of millions of monkeys and bears.

Back on Mount Kailash, Shiva sat in meditation, focusing on the one sound. That sound was RAMA. Like the Cheshire Cat, Shiva’s form faded away.

In Kishkindhya, a little monkey was born, the product of the union of Vayu, god of the wind, and Anjana, a beautiful monkey. Instead of crying, the baby monkey took his first breath on Earth and said RAMA.
Arunachala Hill--considered to be an earthly incarnation of Lord Shiva

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Once Apana Time

My son recently began taking karate, which is great because I have been learning, through osmosis, the forms and the Japanese vocabulary as he learns them.  I have the utmost respect for the teachers, the assistants, and the dojo. 

During class, the teacher often asks the kids “What is the purpose of Karate?”  The answer the teacher is looking for is “Self-defense.” 

The real answer is “To prepare the mind for enlightenment.”

Now I understand that when teaching kids to punch and kick, it is good to emphasize that the techniques are for defense, not attack.  No one wants to see a bunch of Cobra Kai’s running around the playground.  I also understand that mention of “enlightenment” is not necessarily good for business—as it is so readily confused with religion.

"Enlightenment" is defined as the realization that there is no independent existence--or, more bluntly, "Enlightenment" is the act of shutting the heck up for a minute and realizing that I am not the center of the universe. 

I find the connections between the martial arts and yoga fascinating.  At their core, all of these systems seek to create discipline in the body which helps to still the mind to prepare it for meditation.  The forms in the martial arts create a healthy body, and they create an attention to movement. Like asana, when doing a sequence, the goal is to still the thinking mind and act from awareness.  How useless the thinking mind is in a sparring match!  “He’s going to punch with his left, so I will block with my…” KNOCKOUT!  Observation, anticipation, action without internal commentary are all cultivated through these practices.

In yoga, we use asana as a mechanical means to cleans the body and unite apana, the normal downward flow of energy, with prana, the  normal upward flow of energy, in samana, the navel region. This is why in some systems there is great emphasis on mula and uddiyana bandhas—these reverse the normal downward flow of energy and unite prana and apana respectively.  We concentrate on the navel center, the manipura chakra, which stimulates the digestive fire and generates heat to burn away impurities in the body. This is the same as the Dan Tien in Chinese and the Hara in Japanese.

The connection between yoga and the marital arts can be traced to one person: Bodhidharma.  Bodhidharma was an Indian Buddhist monk who arrived at Shaolin Monastery somewhere around 523-527 AD.  He found the monks were too physically weak (read: fat and lazy) to keep up with their meditation practices. He taught them a series of external and internal exercises that were very closely related to yogic asana in order to create the physical and mental strength needed to practice meditation.  From these exercises the various systems of Kung Fu and Qi Gong developed. Bodhidharma is known as the first Zen patriarch. Zen teaches that enlightenment can happen in a flash while the practitioner is still in possession of the body.

Yogic sages also recognized that physical practices are a necessary step to prepare the mind for meditation.  The process of Hatha Yoga has only one purpose—to ready the mind for Raja Yoga (meditation) by mechanically manipulating the energy within the body.

Even more interesting is that both yogic and Buddhist practices set the ultimate goal not as achieving enlightenment, the total realization that there is no independent existence, but on renouncing even enlightenment until all other beings achieve it first.

Karate, Kung Fu, Yoga and the other systems are acts of service.  The practitioner does great service by passing on what they have learned so that it may help another progress on their path. Krishna states in The Bhagavad Gita “Even a little practice will protect you from the greatest fear [that is, the fear that there is nothing more, nothing beyond the impermanent world]” (II.40)

“Protect you…” I guess “Self-defense” is the right answer after all. 

I hope the teachers don’t mind when my son gives this long version as his answer.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

He's Back!

The Mighty Mighty BossTones "He's Back" (and "Simmer Down")

So I've been away for awhile.  I can make up excuses about being busy (I truly hate that word--we are all busy) or explain that writing a book, teaching 2 writing classes in addition to a full-time job, and taking a temporary elevated position in addition to those things take up a lot of time.

But the truth of the matter is I've just been away.

Now I'm back.

The first thing I did go get back was to return to a very demanding asana practice.  Rajas (intensity) to overcome the overwhelming state of tamas (inertia) that I have been in for the last several months.

You want to know something?  I forgot how much fun yoga can be.

Not just jumping around and contorting through the Primary Series, although it IS nice to feel strong again after 15 or so jumps to handstand, but the whole thing:  chanting, japa, asana, pranayama, meditation.  It feels good to sing with joy again.

Even though I did get away from asana  practice, I remained diligent with chanting and japa.  They were lacking in bhava (faith), I will not hide that.  Yet I still did them.  I listened and sang along to kirtan on the way to and from work.  

Without those things, I would have imploded.  

I had to confront myself and come to terms that "life" and "stuff" changed, and that I was refusing to change with it, refusing to adapt to circumstances as they were.

Once I did, the light came back.  The desire to practice again with joy returned.

I truly understood how valuable some practice, in my case japa and chanting, is, even if it is only mechanical. Practice will get you through whatever "it" is that closes in from time to time.

My offering to you: March 8th, 4-6 PM at Hudson River Yoga, "Creating a Home Practice."  I know this method works because it formed the basis for what got me out of my funk.  It created the foundation that allowed me to re-discover my love for the science of Yoga.  I will provide you with all the tools you need to create a solid, consistent home practice.

It is good to be back.

रमा रमा रमा