Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Lessons from a Tortoise

A Cliff Notes version of the story from the epic Mahabharata that explains Vishnu's appearance in his tortoise-like form as Kurmavatara, inspiring the yoga pose kurmasana:  During a war against the Asuras (demon-gods), many of the Devas (demi-gods) perished.  As a result, the Devas sought out Vishnu's help in producing amrita (the nectar of immortality) by churning the cosmic ocean.  The Devas decide to use Mount Mandara in the center of the ocean as the churning rod and Vasuki, the king of the serpents on whom Vishnu rides, as the churning rope.  The giant snake wraps himself around the mountain and the Asuras hold the head and the Devas hold the tail and they pull back and forth.  As they begin to churn the mountain begins to sink into the ocean.  As always when things go awry Vishnu manifests into the world, this time in his tortoise form as Kurmavatar.  He climbs under the mountain and holds it up so the churning can continue. This process churns up a number of things from the depths - one was the lethal poison known as halahala, which Shiva swallows to save humanity from certain death and forever turns his throat blue.  The goddess Lakshmi also arises from the divine stirring, as well as jewels, nymphs, and a divine cow.  Eventually amrita is produced, and the Devas drink to immortality.  

A beautiful depiction of the Churning of the Milk Ocean at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bankok
Vishnu represents the sustaining force of the Universe, which is why he is the one to show up when life starts to fall apart, and there are many yogic practices associated with his mythical tortoise-form. The hard outer shell represents our practice-born ability to stand strong beneath the churning of life, to support the often-turbulent processes that we have to weather in search of a long and meaningful existence. It represents the strength and stability we need to stay steadfast on our spiritual path. 

Kurmavatar also epitomizes the fifth step on Patanjali's ashtanga (eight-limbed) path: pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses.  Just as a turtle draws its head and limbs into its shell for safety and protection, we yogis develop the ability to draw into ourselves to protect our emotional and mental well-being.  In a world increasingly filled with sensory overload, being able to bring awareness inwards to a subtler, quieter, more refined state of being is essential to living with authenticity. I know for me, the more I allow myself to be bombarded with epithets, slogans, memes and hashtags, the more drawn out of myself I become.  I get sucked in by the pretty noise and lose my center, meaning the decisions I make are less a reflection of who I actually am than the person I’m being told I should be. 

Pratyahara gives us the ability to draw our senses away from outer distractions so we can begin to tap into what Sally Kempton calls “the meditation bandwidth” without interference. As we draw our senses inwards, like a tortoise retreating into its shell, we can access the more subtle layers of our awareness, and come closer to our divine essence.  Although is traditionally practiced as a beginning or lead in to meditation practice, it is related to mindfulness practice and helpful in many situations in our daily lives. For example, if we are watching TV or reading a book or surfing our phones when we are eating a meal we are not tuned in to our bellies and when they are actually full.  See any one of the numerous studies that have shown that people who eat in front of the television overeat and make less healthy food choices.  In relationships, if we can be aware of our inner voice we can respond in the present situation from a place of connection and calm. In asana practice, if we are tuned inwards to our own physical and energy bodies we can feel the subtle movements and alignments that will bring us deeper into our poses - the ones we miss when our minds wander off to how lovely a fellow practitioners pose looks, or the adorable baby geese walking by the windows.

The most obvious attribute of the tortoise that can inform our yoga
practice is to simply slow down.  Spiritual practice, meaningful living, learning and growing take time and practice.  The tortoise way is represented by our continual dedication to putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, sometimes staring at the backs of the ones who we feel have pulled ahead of us, seemingly absent of the glory of the leader of the race, and yet the only way to get there.
Off the Mat:
Take time this week to practice drawing inwards.  Some ways to do this: designate a time each day where you can spend 5 minutes with your eyes closed, allowing the breath to draw you inside.  Really, just start with 5 minutes!  If it is working for you, gradually extend the time each week and let a meditation practice begin to flourish.  Or try eating a meal with minimal distractions - no radio, TV, newspaper, phone - and chew each bite 20 - 30 times.  

On the Mat:
Practice forward bending postures which allow us to turn inwards more easily. Do some good hamstring lengthening (like Adho Mukha Svanasana, supta Padangusthasana, and ardhahanumanasana or ardha gomukhasana) as well as shoulder openers (garudasana arms work particularly well) working on creating a long spine before a gentle turtle-shell curve in kurmasana.  If full kurmasana is too deep, upavista konasana or paschimottanasana sitting on a blanket with a strap are good alternatives.

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open to Grace: Fill the inner body with life sustaining breath.
Breathe in and fill yourself with all that supports and holds you steady in practice and in life.

Muscular Energy: Draw from skin –muscle-bone and draw awareness from surface distractions to inner peace and tranquility.
Hug legs to the midline, into a still, calm, quiet place inside.

Organic Energy: Lengthen the spine by expanding away from the focal point, then create a gentle curve.
(In seated forward bends) Root from the PFP down to the earth, and rise up through the spine expanding your inner quiet state through the whole pose.

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