Victory to the Mother: Navratri 2016 Once upon a time, it so happened that demons got control of the earth. They spoiled her streams and rivers, cut down her trees, poisoned her air, polluted her oceans, and destroyed or enslaved many species of her children. Even the gods in heaven were powerless to stop the demons’ predations; one by one, they tried and failed. At last it occurred to them to get together and pool their powers. The gods gathered in a circle and concentrated. Each one projected his own special power, his unique strength for coping with challenges, into the center of the circle. As their qualities merged and solidified a form emerged: a beautiful woman with ten arms, each hand holding a weapon – Vishnu’s discus, Shiva’s trident, and so on. A lion appeared next to her, and with a shout, she mounted the lion and rode away. Soon the chief demon heard rumors of a powerful new woman in the world, and, being who he was, he imagined he could conquer her with the force of his personality. He tried to impress her. That didn’t work. He tried to convince her of his prowess as a lover. She remained unimpressed. He tried bullying and threatening, to no avail. Eventually the goddess – for this was the great goddess, known simply as Devi, although she has many names – eventually Devi grew tired of all this. With a little shimmy of her shoulders, she leapt onto her lion, seized her sword, and swiped off the heads of the demon and his henchmen. Oddly, a buffalo emerged from the body of the dying demon. For that reason he is known today as Mahishasura, the buffalo demon, and one of Devi’s most popular titles is Mahishasuramardini, buffalo-demon-slayer. The whole story is recounted in detail in the text known as Devi-mahatmya, the glory of the goddess. The battle, and her victory – which, as you might expect, restored balance to earth and all her inhabitants – is celebrated for nine nights (nav ratri) in India and elsewhere every autumn, with singing and dancing and plays and floats depicting the Devi and the demon in various aspects – because, of course, this battle and her victory are going on all the time. Whenever and wherever power is valued over people, that is the buffalo demon at work; when a counter-power arises, one that values the earth and her people over profit and force, there is the Devi. And no matter how fierce the battle or how long it takes, She always wins. Remember that.


Guardians, from Ganesha to Sacred Stone Camp

September 5, 2016

Today is Labor Day, and the beginning of Ganesha Chaturthi – the annual festival celebrating Ganesha’s birthday. It’s also my friend Wren’s birthday, and Day I-don’t-know-how-many of the peaceful struggle in North Dakota to stop Big Oil from destroying sacred sites and polluting the water. No doubt it is a memorable date for many other reasons, but what’s especially alive in me at the moment is awareness of the power of nonviolent persistence.

India’s beloved elephant-headed deity Ganesha has the head of an elephant and the body of a child. He carries a mace. His vehicle is a rat. He is the guardian of threshholds and the opener of ways. He is invoked at the beginning of endeavors. Although Ganesha is not a new deity, his home-based worship became an important public festival in 1893 when the freedom fighter Lokamanya Tilak saw its potential for promoting unity among India’s many different castes and communities. Public political gatherings were banned by India’s British rulers at the time, but they could not prohibit peaceful religious gatherings. And so Maharashtra became the om-point, as it were, for India’s burgeoning sense of national identity and solidarity, with Hindus and Muslims alike occupying public spaces in honor of Ganesha.

Who is Ganesha? Legend makes him the son of Parvati, the goddess best known as the wife and student of Lord Shiva. Cosmically, Shiva’s role is to destroy what no longer serves so that new life can emerge. One day when Shiva was away, Parvati wanted privacy for her bath. From sandalwood paste and the cells of her body she created a boy child and set him to guard the door. Shiva arrived home unexpectedly, and there was a confrontation between him and this unknown “son of Parvati” – which Shiva won, cutting off Ganesha’s head. Parvati, understandably furious, made him go and get the head of the first creature he encountered, which happened to be an elephant. She fixed the elephant’s head to the child’s body, and Ganesha was here.

Elephants are not violent creatures, but they are unstoppable. They use those huge wise heads to push over, or through, anything in their way. They are social, cooperating with one another. Ganesha combines the wisdom and implacability of an elephant with the vulnerability of a young human; his favorite foods are milk and sweets, like any child. His rat vehicle seems at first absurd – it’s so small, compared with his size! But rats have their own talents for finding a way, or gnawing a way, where there does not seem to be a way. So, Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity who rides a rat, is a powerful ally when you want to begin or sustain any endeavor, especially when that endeavor involves overcoming obstacles without using force. Ganesha was originally created, don’t forget, to protect his mother. Mother India and Mother Earth are his particular concerns. And India’s independence was won, against all odds, nonviolently, by the sheer persistence and unstoppability of Gandhi’s “noncooperation movement” in the communities he mobilized, some fifty years after the first public Ganesha festival. Gandhi called his movement “satyagraha”, “taking your stand on the truth.”

Today, on Ganesha Chaturthi, in North Dakota, men and women and kids are being beaten, jailed, maced, and attacked to disrupt their resistance to an illegal pipeline whose construction is destroying sacred territory. The persistence of corporate disregard for the earth, for human life, and for truth is hardly even news today.

The good news, the great news, is that Native Americans, those whose resources are the most directly threatened and whose treaties are violated by the actions of our government – the indigenous people of this country are gathering as they have not for generations. They are coming together unarmed, these descendants of warriors, with a prayerful attitude. Like the South Asian Indians whose independence movement grew out of the Ganesha celebration, they are dancing and chanting and praying and locking arms in public spaces, they are putting their bodies in the service of truth. Their struggle is not being widely reported, but it is, it should be, of utmost interest and concern to the human community, because they are putting their lives on the line for all of us, and they are modelling the strength of ordinary people to effect tremendous change through the force of truth.

I grew up in the sixties. My parents and mentors taught me both that you, as a human being, must resist the powers that would exploit the earth and her people, and that you must expect to suffer for that resistance. Victory comes at a cost, and it doesn’t come quickly, but it does come. And if you can’t go in person to take your stand on the truth, you must offer what support it is in your power to offer to those who do put their bodies on the line.

This link will take you to a page where you can donate to the Sacred Stone camp:

This link will fill you in on the history of this controversy:

Memorial Day; or, Have You Seen the Elephant?

Zo Newell, writer and mythologist

Unknown soldier, NY 148th volunteers

Memorial Day; or, Have You Seen the Elephant?.

Memorial Day; or, Have You Seen the Elephant?

A popular expression during the Civil War for a combat veteran was “He’s seen the elephant” – meaning, this person has met with something utterly outside the normal range of experience.”Elephant” was a potent symbol, then, for things stranger and vaster than you could possibly imagine. Some people don’t survive seeing the elephant; some do; no one returns unchanged.

At the top of this page is a picture of an unknown soldier of the New York 148th Volunteers.  When I first showed it to my husband, he said softly, “Is he blind?” No; those are the eyes of someone who has seen the elephant.

As it happens, many of the soldiers of the 148th came from Waterloo, New York, a smallish town in the Finger Lakes which, in…

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Happy birthday, Ganesha! (and why I love elephants)

Zo Newell, writer and mythologist

Who doesn’t love a baby elephant? I’m a sucker for the long lashes, the sweet smile, and the undeniably cuddly look of these soon-to-be-majestic creatures.  Combining snuggly vulnerability with the promise of enormous power and strength as they do, it’s no wonder that elephants are such popular creatures with children.

When I was a child in New York City, my bedroom was protected at night by an elephant nightlight, my mother read me Jean de Brunhof’s wonderful Babar books, and I had a gray and pink plush toy to sleep with. I knew elephants as friendly companions, smaller than my small self. It came as something of a shock, when I grew up and went to India, to encounter real elephants striding huge and majestic along the road, built on a grander scale than any creature I had yet come close to, and utterly indifferent to insignificant me.

Today, September…

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“Lost in the air, lost in the world” – an experience of sirsasana

I got an email the other day from Brasil, from a woman who said that she has been practicing ashtanga yoga for a year and a half.  She recently bought the Portuguese version of Downward Dogs and Warriors –  there’s a Portuguese version? Who knew? – and she has been following suggestions for journaling about her feelings and sensations during her practice.

She wrote to tell me about her challenges in sirsasana.  In this pose, she says, she feels “unsafe, lost in the air, lost in the world, with no control…” and so sometimes she avoids practicing it. She wondered if I could tell her the mythology of this asana to help her come to terms with what comes up for her. (DD&W’s comments on trikonasana, another pose she is apt to avoid, have been helping her to continue with that one.)

She added that when she recently attempted bhujapidasana (an arm balance which strongly lifts the diaphragm), she began to weep uncontrollably and without warning. Someone in her family had died the day before, so she was sad, but she didn’t understand what it was about that asana which had triggered her tears.

I feel honored when I hear from readers about their personal experiences with my book, and very happy to know that there are people out there benefiting from my suggestions for practice. I’m a passionate reader, myself, but I have written to very few authors, and I am touched when a reader takes the time to write to me and I recognize that their letters are important.  I felt bad, at first, because I do not know a specific myth related to sirsasana.  (I thought of the hanged man in the Tarot deck, but didn’t pursue it.)  I reread her email a couple of times, and then it hit me that both of the poses she was struggling with were inversions of sorts. Well, not exactly. Bhujapidasana is not a inversion in the sense that the belly is not higher than the heart, but it resembles full-arm balance in the action of the arms and diaphragm; also, the feet are off the ground as they are in most inversions.

Realizing this about bhujapidasana reminded me of a dramatic moment in my own history with inversions, which took place during a teacher training intensive. I kicked up and began to cry so hard that I had to come down. I retreated to the bathroom, where I sobbed my guts out. Those tears were purely visceral;  I had no idea what I was crying about. The asana had triggered it.

So I wrote back to the young ashtangi:

It sounds like you are doing some excellent inner work with journalling your feelings during asana practice. Your experience with bhujapidasana reminds me of something that once happened to me in full-arm balance, years ago. I kicked up, and began to sob, quite unexpectedly. I cried hard for a long time. I think that, maybe, in both poses, the action of taking weight on your arms and reversing the position of the diaphragm changes your habitual breathing pattern and frees the breath to allow for deeper-than-usual exhalation. When grief is held in the body, this change may allow it to come out as sobs. In my case, there had been no recent loss, but I was carrying a lot of old sadness, and this experience of deep, long sobbing left me feeling lighter and very relieved emotionally, even though I had not been conscious that I was especially sad. My teacher at the time asked me: Are you afraid of supporting yourself? I would have said, no – I’ve earned money all my life, I am very independent, of course not! But on a deeper level, her question has resonated for me down the years, in terms of emotional support. This might be a good question for you to think and write about, too.

As for sirsasana – I don’t know a specific myth relating to it offhand. Swami Sivananda and others have pointed out that when you go upside down, you “change your perspective”. You say you feel lost, not safe, out of control. Ask yourself in what other circumstances those feelings arise. Maybe you have very specific “rules” for feeling comfortable and in control in your life; where do they come from? Do they still serve you? Are they perhaps more rigid than necessary?

BKS Iyengar has said that the front of the brain has to do with personal ego, the base of the brain has to do with God and the universal or collective Self. When we lower the front brain, as in meditation, or as in sirsasana, the individual identity (self) and its concerns are subordinated to spiritual, universal influences (Self). “You” are no longer in control – God is in control! This can be terrifying to the individual ego. I encourage you to reflect and journal about this idea, too. It’s at the very heart of yoga: when “I” go down, “God” (which is to say, my true nature) comes up – and then what?

On a more concrete level, you might try practicing sirsasana at a wall, or in the corner of two walls – it’s possible that your fear also has to do with a lack of physical balance in the pose, or that your body’s sense of where it is in space (proprioception) is challenged.  Possibly if you get used to balancing with your back at a wall, it will be less frightening to move gradually away from the wall. Similarly with trikonasana – try doing it with your back against a wall, then move away.

Thank you so much for writing to me. It makes me very happy to know that you are out there in the world using my book as I had hoped, and that it is helping you to deepen your practice. Please keep me posted, if you feel like it.

Blessings to you,

I think the question of emotion and asana is a very important one, and it goes to the heart of how asana helps us to confront our unconsciousness fears and attitudes. I invite feedback and comments from you other readers and practitioners. Thank you!

Happy birthday, Ganesha! (and why I love elephants)

Who doesn’t love a baby elephant? I’m a sucker for the long lashes, the sweet smile, and the undeniably cuddly look of these soon-to-be-majestic creatures.  Combining snuggly vulnerability with the promise of enormous power and strength as they do, it’s no wonder that elephants are such popular creatures with children.

When I was a child in New York City, my bedroom was protected at night by an elephant nightlight, my mother read me Jean de Brunhof’s wonderful Babar books, and I had a gray and pink plush toy to sleep with. I knew elephants as friendly companions, smaller than my small self. It came as something of a shock, when I grew up and went to India, to encounter real elephants striding huge and majestic along the road, built on a grander scale than any creature I had yet come close to, and utterly indifferent to insignificant me.

Today, September 19, is Ganesha Chaturthi, the day that Hindus and elephant-lovers everywhere celebrate the birth of the beloved elephant-headed Ganesha. Ganesha is the son, sort of, of Shiva, the mythological lord of yogis, and his wife Parvati. The story goes, that while Shiva was away from home on one of his extended wanderings around the universe with his troop of goblins (think: biker buddies), Parvati wanted to bathe. Being modest, and wanting to protect her privacy from possible drop-ins from some of Shiva’s rowdier friends, she felt the need of a guardian. Mixing the dead skin from her body with sandalwood oil, she created a boy and stationed him at the door to her private suite with instructions to admit no one. While she was bathing, Shiva came home and called for his wife. “She’s taking a bath,” the stranger told him. “Wait here till she’s out of the tub.”  “And who are you?” demanded Shiva, annoyed but half-amused. “I’m her son, Ganesha.” Her son! “Well, I’m her husband, and you are definitely not my son. Now, get out of the way.” But the boy not only blocked Shiva from entering, he drew a weapon. Shiva, not about to stand for this from an unknown kid, drew his own weapon, and before long, Ganesha’s head was lying at Shiva’s feet.

When Parvati came out of the bathroom and saw her husband standing over the body of the child she had created, you can imagine her feelings. “Go get another head,” she told Shiva. “I don’t care, just take the head of the first creature you see, bring it here, and put it on my son. Now.”

The first creature Shiva met was an elephant. To make a long story short, he took the elephant’s head, brought it home, and put it on the pudgy pre-adolescent body of the boy, restoring him to life. And that, since you were wondering, is why Ganesha has a childish body, but an elephant’s head. And everyone was happy. In the picture above, you can see the whole family snuggled together, almost as if for a Christmas card:Shiva in the middle, Parvati on the left, Ganesha on the right. The bull in front is Nandi, who carries Shiva (and sometimes the whole family) on his back across the universe.

Because he was created to guard Parvati’s threshold, Ganesha is the patron deity of transitions. Because an elephant can use its powerful trunk to uproot or knock down virtually any obstacle, he is known as the “opener of the way”, invoked before beginning any new endeavor. It is fitting that his holiday should be celebrated as summer turns to fall, and a new season, or year, begins. Because he is still a child, he loves sweets, particularly an Indian dessert called laddoo, a ball made from flour and butter, and dripping with honey. So if you are starting something new – and who isn’t, this time of year? – or if you want the solid strength and protection that an elephant (even a nightlight, or a plush one) can bring, remember Ganesha, and honor him with something sweet.

Coincidentally – or not – Ganesha’s birthday holiday falls, this year, during the Jewish New Year, when people traditionally feast on apples and honey. So, as I see it, there is no excuse not to join in celebrating the earth’s bounty of fruit and grain, and the sweetness of new beginnings. Jai Ganesha, and a sweet year to us all!

Satya and Satva: Clarity and Sincerity

It’s official: studying yoga philosophy promotes good health! (At least, according to a newly-released NIH study:

Philosophy nerd that I am, I don’t really need NIH’s endorsement to write on (and on, and on) about a topic that I find genuinely fascinating. Nevertheless, it doesn’t really take that much to encourage me, especially when some official body says it’s good for my health. Besides, I am working, somewhat sporadically, on an intro-to-yoga-philosophy document for an upcoming workshop, and writing is how I think. So here are some recent thoughts about two related concepts: Satva and Satya, clarity and sincerity.

Sat, in Sanskrit, is a root meaning something which exists, something which is real, clear, pure, true.

In terms of the gunas which constitute the “stuff” of which our  universe is made, Satva guna is often represented by the color white, or a color-less crystal. A state of balance, or health, is one in which satva predominates. Yoga philosophy regards satva as our natural state, the way we would be and the way we would think if we didn’t let our bodies and minds get all cluttered up with junk food and its mental equivalents.

Satvic food is food which is clean, fresh, and nutritious, not overly stimulating.
A satvic mind is one which is free from negative thoughts and judgments.
A satvic person is calm, non-reactive; someone who knows what they know but does not try to impose their views on anyone else; one who is straightforward, not a cheater or manipulator; confident, successful at no one’s expense; a person of integrity, someone who does no harm.

Satya is usually translated as truth, or sincerity. The Satya yuga, in Hindu cosmology, is the “golden age” in which righteousness prevails; everyone tells the truth, and everyone spontaneously cares for the welfare of the community and the planet. Philosophically, satya is that which is unchangeable, that which pervades the universe. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad equates satya with the divine. Much like the Biblical “God is love,” satya is the transcendental glue that holds us all together.

Easily entertained as I am by language and its implications, and preoccupied as I am with yoga and its teaching, I can’t help pondering: What do these twin concepts mean for those of us who accept the title “yoga teacher”? Here are some questions that arise for me:

How do I, as a teacher, embody satva and satya? This is not an abstract question. I mean, practically speaking: Are my words and explanations clear? Are they sincere – do they spring from my authentic experience? Do I know what I’m talking about, and can I convey it to my students?

What would a satvic yoga practice look like and feel like? I don’t just mean what poses would you include in your set list, but employing action so simple and true that a mere shift in the pressure of a toe would make you go “Oohh!” and feel like disappearing into thin air out of sheer awe and gratitude. But there I go, getting all cosmic again; maybe a satvic practice is just a purely honest, modest one with no expectations.

What is the “truth”, the satya, of my interactions with students? Is it  “true” for me to point out physical misalignment? To establish a respectful relationship? What if there seems to be a disjunct between providing information about a pose and engaging a student emotionally? If I’m clear and sincere, will I automatically be kind?

Please, weigh in with comments: what does it mean to you, as a teacher, to be clear and sincere? Or to you, as a student, to work with a teacher who embodies these qualities?  After all, thinking about these things is good for our health!




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