If you’ve spent much time around the practice of yoga, even in the most sterilized version of what is called yoga, you will almost certainly have seen imagery or heard stories or chants invoking one of the many deities in the Hindu mythology.
Are we crazy? Chanting to these blue guys, the half-monkey man, the elephant-headed rotund one, the eye-bulging-bloody-tongued-skirt-of-arms-necklace-of-skulls-lady? As for the crazy part, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve had it checked out and nope, the diagnosis is: fairly sane. In fact, at least for me and many of those I practice with, there is something not only sane but potent and even resonant in directing my attention to these divine beings. In expressing reverence and devotion to these various and colorful figures, I find that I’m expressing reverence and devotion to the One that dwells in the all.
Let me explain: Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces suggests that all mythology of all times works in similar ways and carries similar themes. Like the ancient Vedic texts called the Purānas, myths work by taking aspects of the One and turning them into characters in a story, whether that story is understood as history, literature, or scripture. The Ultimate Reality is revealed by being divided into many forms, which can then be presented to us in the form of stories. In the non-dual tradition of yoga I study and practice, the Divine can only be recognized by us humans when we meet it in its many, visible and worldly forms. Those forms may be other humans, the beings with whom we share this planet, or our own states of mind and feelings. As I developed a more personal connection to the deities and their many aspects, I too found a closer connection and compassion to my many states of being. I came to see that the body, mind, emotions I call mine, which seem so limited and fallible, so separate from anything Divine, are really an expression of Consciousness, a me-sized version of the One.
This reminds me of one of my favorite stories of Hanuman. As he’s speaking to Ram, Hanuman says to Ram, “when I forget who I am, I call your name: Ram Ram Ram Sita Ram Ram Ram. But when I remember who I am, I am you and you are me.”
Since, from my experience, most of us are still fairly lost in the separation of self from ultimate reality, we create avenues, connection points, pathways to remembering. It may take the form of a murti, a figure infused with the essence of its Deity, which we keep as part of our altar at home or in the studio. By giving our attention to the murti, through meditation or rituals like puja, we take our fractured life force and narrow it toward the focal point of this particular Divine remembrance. We create a similar focal point with the ripple of sound when we, not unlike Hanuman, call the name of a particular aspect of the One through mantra. I’ve found that simply repeating these Divine names has the effect of making me feel less isolated.
If we’re uncomfortable with notions of “Gods” and “Goddesses” or chanting in languages we don’t know, we can look to devotion of the divine through what to the untrained eye are inanimate objects; trees, mountains, rocks and the like. The form of devotion is really less important than the activity of devotion itself. Murti, mantra, yantra (divine geometry), postures, tree-hugging: it really doesn’t matter. The point is that we use an external object or practice to connect back into the feeling of Oneness we often lose track of in our busy, over-full lives. That Oneness is always right there, waiting to be remembered.
So here we are in the West, stretchy pants on, waiting to crush our chaturanga and maybe nail that cool arm balance we saw on Instagram. One day we come into the studio to be met by this image: a wild-haired man with a drum in his hand, who looks like he’s prancing with flames at the tips of his splayed dredlocks and dancing on what appears to be—a baby?? Then the teacher (in this case, let’s just say, me) starts playing a depressing sounding organ/piano/accordian thingee and singing words we don’t know in a language we can’t understand. We have no idea what we’re saying and yet the folks around us seem to be weirdly into it and not running from the room, which (let’s face it) may have been our first impulse. So we decide to stay and maybe we even start to hum along, and possibly we make up some words that sound like the ones everyone else is saying. And possibly for a moment we forget our dramas from the day, we forget our posturing in the world and attempting to make ourselves more important than others, more permanent and powerful. And we just repeat and repeat and repeat until we’re just breath and the ripple of sound all meeting on an equal ground.
We turn to the deities to remind ourselves when we’ve forgotten who we are. Our devotion to these figures can serve as an expression of our interconnectedness to all beings. Wow—that sounds great! But maybe that’s a little too much to ask. Maybe it’s enough that when I connect to the Deities, I find a way back to myself. I beat back a little of the separation I often feel not only from others but also from myself. I come home.
About the Author:
Janet Stone’s studentship began at 17 under the meditation teachings of Prem Rawat. His reverence for simplicity and finding joy in the rise and fall of life live on in her practice and teaching today. In 1996, she traveled to India, the birthplace of her grandfather, and became dedicated to the path of yoga. Janet blends the alchemy of her own practice with decades of studentship.
She aspires not to teach but to allow the practice to emanate from her, letting awareness blend with movement and breath.
Based in Bali and San Francisco, she leads immersions, retreats, workshops and more. For more janetstoneyoga.com