Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Transformative Power of Shiva

Hello Dear Yogis, and Happy Autumn!

At this time of year, when the growing season comes to a close and the earth prepares for dormancy, I am reminded of Shiva, the Hindu deity that embodies transformation and change. In the Hindu Trinity that consists of Brahma (the creative force that brings all forms into being), and Vishnu (the preserver, who sustains and balances all life),  Shiva is the destroyer, and is responsible for the necessary dissolution of all life forms, creating space for new birth.

Shiva is the power of transformation and purification that lives in each of us. Shiva clears away whatever is old and no longer serves us. Shiva calls us to let go of illusion, to dissolve the egoic mind that keeps us stuck in our sense of separateness, and lovingly destroys all that keeps us from knowing our inherent divinity.

And, Shiva is also that state of Grace, that pure consciousness that is present when all illusion falls away. So, Shiva is both a process of transformation and the end result of that process.

Iconically, Shiva is represented in myriad ways. One common image is the Nataraj, or dancer, who dances wildly in a ring of fire, turning everything to dust. This fire dance symbolizes the circle of samasara, the earthly round of creation and destruction through which all beings pass.

In addition to being the destroyer, Shiva is often depicted as a contemplative, who after witnessing the suffering of earthly beings, sought to find a way to peace and freedom.  This search led him into deep meditation, leading to the discovery of  the yoga asanas and other practices, which he then taught to his wife, Parvati.

Shiva is also worshipped in the form of the lingam, a stone phallus. Elaborate pujas (devotional rituals) are performed in which the lingam is bathed in milk and honey, decorated with garlands of flowers, and smeared with fragrant sandalwood paste. The Shiva lingam represents the vast potential and possibility that lies within each and every one of us. So, although Shiva is responsible for destroying life, He is also recognized as an essential creative power.

One can explore in great depth the myth and symbolism behind any of the gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. For some, the anthropomorphic images and stories can help them connect to the energy that lies behind the forms. However, it is not necessary for one to believe in a literal deity in order to access their power. We only need to look at life around us to receive their essence.

Autumn is a time when we can feel and see the presence of Shivaas we witness the falling away of what is finished. In every leaf that falls, Shiva is present. In every withering vine, Shiva is alive.

Shiva is present when we say goodbye to loved ones who have come to the end of their life in this body and must pass on.

Whenever we must let go of an old habit or some way of being that no longer serves us, Shiva is alive in us, doing his dance of transformation, clearing us out and creating an opening for the new to come streaming in.

And, Shiva lives in us as we practice yoga and meditation, as we seek to unleash our own innate transformative power, through this path to peace.

I offer you this chant that I often sing as an invocation to begin our yoga classes:

Om Namah Shivaya Gurave
Saccidananda Murtaye
Nischprapanchaya Shantaya
Niralambaya Tejase

I bow to the goodness within myself, known as Lord Shiva, who is the true teacher.
This essence inside takes the form of truth, consciousness, and bliss
Always present and full of peace,
this essence inside is completely free,
and sparkles with a divine luster.

May our yoga practice illuminate the divine luster within us, and together may we bring light to the world. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Meaning of 108

If you saw the announcements for the 108 sun salutations event that happened in Ithaca this past weekend, you may wonder what’s so special about the number 108. Or, if you use a mala, or set of mantra counting beads, there are generally 108 beads (or some fraction of that number). Why are there 108 beads on a mala?

If you really delve deeply into the answer, it can make your head spin, as some of the explanations are quite complex. I offer below just a few of the associations with the number 108, both from the yoga tradition and from other spiritual teachings as well.

Note: I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all the statements below, as it would have taken hours of research.  These have been gathered from a variety of sources, on the web and from written materials. Some of these tidbits of information may be useful to you, while some of it might seem like myth or superstition. I invite you to see what resonates with you, taking what you like and leaving the rest.

9 times 12: Both of these numbers have been said to have spiritual significance in many traditions. 9 times 12 is 108. Also, 1 plus 8 equals 9. That 9 times 12 equals 108.
Powers of 1, 2, and 3 in math: 1 to 1st power=1; 2 to 2nd power=4 (2x2); 3 to 3rd power=27 (3x3x3). 1x4x27=108
Harshad number: 108 is a Harshad number, which is an integer divisible by the sum of its digits (Harshad is from Sanskrit, and means "great joy")
Desires: There are said to be 108 earthly desires in mortals.
Lies: There are said to be 108 lies that humans tell.
Delusions: There are said to be 108 human delusions or forms of ignorance.
Heart Chakra: The chakras are the intersections of energy lines, and there are said to be a total of 108 energy lines converging to form the heart chakra.
Marmas: Marmas or marmasthanas are like energy intersections called chakras, except have fewer energy lines converging to form them. There are said to be 108 marmas in the subtle body.
Sanskrit alphabet: There are 54 letters in the Sanskrit alphabet. Each has masculine and feminine, shiva and shakti. 54 times 2 is 108.
Pranayama: If one is able to be so calm in meditation as to have only 108 breaths in a day, enlightenment will come.
Upanishads: Some say there are 108 Upanishads, the vedic texts of the ancient India.
Sri Yantra: On the Sri Yantra (a sacred geometric figure) there are marmas where three lines intersect, and there are 54 such intersections. Each intersections has masculine and feminine, shiva and shakti qualities. 54 times 2 equals 108. Thus, there are 108 points that define the Sri Yantra as well as the human body.
Pentagon: The angle formed by two adjacent lines in a pentagon equals 108 degrees.
Time: Some say there are 108 feelings, with 36 related to the past, 36 related to the present, and 36 related to the future.
8 extra beads: In doing a practice of counting the number of repetitions of the mala, 100 are counted as completed. The remaining are said to cover errors or omissions. The 8 are also said to be an offering to God and Guru.
Astrology: There are 12 constellations, and 9 arc segments called namshas or chandrakalas. 9 times 12 equals 108. Chandra is moon, and kalas are the divisions within a whole.
River Ganga: The sacred River Ganga spans a longitude of 12 degrees (79 to 91), and a latitude of 9 degrees (22 to 31). 12 times 9 equals 108.
Planets and Houses: In astrology, there are 12 houses and 9 planets. 12 times 9 equals 108.
Goddess names: There are said to be 108 Indian goddess names.
Gopis of Krishna: In the Krishna tradition, there were said to be 108 gopis or maid servants of Krishna.
1, 0, and 8: Some say that 1 stands for God or higher Truth, 0 stands for emptiness or completeness in spiritual practice, and 8 stands for infinity or eternity.
Sun and Earth: The diameter of the Sun is 108 times the diameter of the Earth. The distance from the Sun to the Earth is 108 times the diameter of the Sun.
Moon and Earth: The average distance of the Moon from the Earth is 108 times the diameter of the Moon.
Silver and the moon: In astrology, the metal silver is said to represent the moon. The atomic weight of silver is 108.
Numerical scale: The 1 of 108, and the 8 of 108, when added together equals 9, which is the number of the numerical scale, i.e. 1, 2, 3 ... 10, etc., where 0 is not a number.
Meditations: Some say there are 108 styles of meditation.
Breath: Tantra estimates the average number of breaths per day at 21,600, of which 10,800 are solar energy, and 10,800 are lunar energy. Multiplying 108 by 100 is 10,800. Multiplying 2 x 10,800 equals 21,600.
Paths to God: Some suggest that there are 108 paths to God.
Smaller divisions: The number 108 is divided, such as in half, third, quarter, or twelfth, so that some malas have 54, 36, 27, or 9 beads.
Hinduism: 108 is said to refer to the number of Hindu deities. Some say that each of the deities has 108 names.
Islam: The number 108 is used in Islam to refer to God.
Jain: In the Jain religion, 108 are the combined virtues of five categories of holy ones, including 12, 8, 36, 25, and 27 virtues respectively.
Sikh: The Sikh tradition has a mala of 108 knots tied in a string of wool, rather than beads.
Buddhism: Some Buddhists carve 108 small Buddhas on a walnut for good luck. Some ring a bell 108 times to celebrate a new year. There are said to be 108 virtues to cultivate and 108 defilements to avoid.
Chinese: The Chinese Buddhists and Taoists use a 108 bead mala, which is called su-chu, and has three dividing beads, so the mala is divided into three parts of 36 each. Chinese astrology says that there are 108 sacred stars.
Stages of the soul: Said that Atman, the human soul or center goes through 108 stages on the journey.
Dance: There are 108 forms of dance in the Indian traditions.
Praiseworthy souls: There are 108 qualities of praiseworthy souls.
First man in space: The first manned space flight lasted 108 minutes, and was on April 12, 1961 by Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut.
Names for Shiva: 108 is the number of names for Shiva (an important Hindu god)
Names for Buddha: 108 is the number of names for Buddha
Man: 108 is the Chinese number representing "man"
Tibetan Mala: 108 is the number of beads on a Tibetan "mala"
Judaism: 108 is six times the number "18", which is a Jewish good luck number
Sun Salutations: 108 is twelve times the number 9, which is the number of vinyasas (movements linked to breath) in a Sun Salutation.
Tantra: According to the Tantric heritage, there are 108 pilgrimage centers (pîtha) that are dedicated to the feminine (lunar) principle, or Shakti.

And, if I haven’t lost you by now, and you really like numbers, here’s more:

The number 108 is connected with 18, which, in Hindu symbolism, is said to represent completeness or wholeness. This number is prominent in the Mahâbhârata epicwhich consists of 18 books, just as the Bhagavad-Gîtâ (embedded in the epic) consists of 18 chapters. The Bharata war was waged for 18 days, and the armies (akshauhinî) on the opposing sides numbered 18 as well. An akshauhinî consists of 21,870 chariots, 21,870 elephants, 65,610 horses, and 109,350 footsoldiers, which makes a total of 218,700 units. The total of the digits of each number adds up to 18! The epic has many more instances of this kind relating to the number 18, and it is also found in other Indian works. The Mahâbhârata (12.267.28) itself provides a key to this symbolic number as follows:

The connection between 18 and 108 can be found also in an important microcosmic cycle, namely the 21,600 daily breaths we take. According to Tantra, 10,800 breaths are lunar, 10,800 breaths are solar. They alternate in us in the form of the alternating nasal cycle, which medicine has confirmed, so that the body has its microcosmic reflection of the macrocosmic eclipses. The microcosmic/macrocosmic parallelism was of the utmost significance to the Indian sages. They saw it as demonstrating the flawless harmony (rita) at work in the cosmos.

Now, 21,600 = 18 x 1200 or 108 x 200. 21,600 yields other important numerical derivations:
21,600 : 60 = 360 (the ideal Vedic year)
21,600 : 800 = 27 (number of lunar houses in Vedic astrology)
21,600 : 108 = 200 (number of arcseconds defining a navâmsha in Vedic astrology)
Looking at a larger cosmic cycle—the yugas (or world ages)—we find that each is calculated as multiples of 21,600.
krita-yuga —1,728,000 solar years = 21,600 x 80
tretâ-yuga —1,296,000 solar years = 21,600 x 60
dvâpara-yuga —864,000 solar years = 21,600 x 40
kali-yuga — 432,000 solar years = 21,600 x 20
The sum total of these four world ages makes:
kalpa — 4,320,000 solar years = 21,600 x 200 or 108 x 40,000 or 18 x 240,000

Thus the number 18 is fundamental to Indian psychocosmology.

So, dear yogis, that should give you plenty to digest. If it's not already part of your practice, you may want to explore  reciting a mantra or prayer 108 times daily with a mala. Or,  you may want to try 108 repetitions of a particular pranayama (breath control technique) and see what you notice. May you enjoy your own inquiry into the power of 108! 


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Chanting, Then and Now

It’s 1973, and I’m walking in Manhattan’s Central Park. From a distance I hear drums and voices singing. As I approach, I see a cluster of very exuberant people wearing colorful, exotic clothing, with funny hairdos (or hair-don’ts!), garlands of flowers, and ankle bells.  They are full of energy and joy, chanting endless repetitions of the Maha Mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare, Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare…

I see them only as another of the City’s many fringe cults. In my mind, I lump them into the same category as the “Moonies,” those dazed and confused young followers of Rev. Moon, or the “Purple People” who used to ride their bikes through the park, wearing only purple clothing. I watch with amusement as the Hare Krishnas dance and sing. I recognize the mantra as being “from” the Broadway musical Hair.

Fast forward 30 years. It’s Labor Day weekend 2004, and I am at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, at the very first annual Ecstatic Chant Festival. I signed up because chanting sounded fun. I find myself in a huge hall with 300 other people. An American Jewish guy from Long Island named Krishna Das gets on the stage and sits down at the harmonium (a small hand-pumped organ used in Indian music). He is not wearing orange robes, flowers, or bells. Instead, he has an unassuming outfit of jeans and a flannel shirt. He and his band begin to lead us in kirtan, Hindu call-and-response devotional chanting.

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare, Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare…

I feel waves of love welling up in me. Love for myself, for my partner, for everyone in that huge room, and for the Divine. My heart cracks open. Tears flow, and I finally understand, without being able to explain it rationally, what those Hare Krishna folks were up to.

My life has not been the same since that moment. Since then, I have made it a yearly pilgrimage to spend a weekend singing kirtan. Most years it has been at the Omega Institute for their Labor Day Extravaganza, although last year I flew out to the Bhakti Fest in Joshua Tree, California. And, in the summer of 2008, I had the pleasure of attending Jai Uttal’s week-long kirtan camp immersion in Marin County, California.

The rise in popularity of kirtan festivals, camps, and workshops are indicative of a wave that is sweeping the United States and other Western countries as well. Although it is an ancient practice from India, it is beginning to find its way into the mainstream, as yoga is becoming increasingly popular in the West.

Kirtan has been practiced in groups for millennia. When the group all feels like one voice, you feel the divine presence. It’s shining in all the molecules. It is super- high and beautiful. But that feeling of high is different from the high of drugs and alcohol. It’s so much a feeling of the divine presence. I always feel like we’re giving so much of our hearts to each other, our spriits and our passion. Most of us live life on a pretty low burner. When we can share that heart energy, the flame rises and it’s just so great. If you’re singing with an open heart, the presence of God, the divine spirit, the universal spirit—whatever you want to call it—is in the chants. The more we invest our hearts in the chants, the more that spirit is there. When you do it in a group, each person increases the others’ experience.
~ Kirtan leader Jai Uttal, interviewed by Maggie Jacobus in Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Path

What does all this have to do with yoga? Chanting is one of the main practices of Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of Love and devotion. Whereas hatha yoga tones and energize the body through postures and breath, bhakti yoga opens the heart . It is also a meditative practice, as the repetition of the Names and mantras focus and settle the mind. Ultimately, yoga is about becoming more fully alive and connected to Source. Chanting is one of the portals into that place where we touch into Spirit’s grace.

This year I attended the Omega Ecstatic Chant Festival for Labor Day only (an option for those who cannot attend the entire weekend).  The highlights for me were:  

Deva Premal and Mitenwith Bansuri flute master Manose Singh


I recommend Jai's new CD, Queen of Hearts. 

And, last but not least, The Mayapuris, who were fabulous muscians and dancers, as well as nice to look at!

I invite you to check out the above links and explore this world of kirtan. Enjoy!

OM Shanti,

Where Everything Is Music

Don't worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it doesn't matter.

We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.

The strumming and the flute notes
rise into the atmosphere,
and even if the whole world's harp
should burn up, there will still be
hidden instruments playing.

So the candle flickers and goes out.
We have a piece of flint, and a spark.

This singing art is sea foam.
The graceful movements come from a pearl
somewhere on the ocean floor.

Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge
of driftwood along the beach, wanting!

They derive
from a slow and powerful root
that we can't see.

Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.

-- Jalaluddin Rumi
translated by Coleman Barks

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Jai Ganesha!

Hello Dear Yogis,

Labor Day weekend marks the beginning of the fall season. Although the actual autumn equinox is still a few weeks away, culturally this is the end of summer. New schedules and routines begin as students and teachers go back to school, and we gear up for new projects and activities.

It is customary in the Hindu/yogic tradition to invoke Ganesha, the Lord of beginnings, of success, and the remover of obstacles, at the start of any new endeavor. He is also honored at the beginning of rituals and ceremonies, and kirtan (Hindu call and response devotional chanting) typically begins with a chant to Ganesha.

Ganesha is one of the most beloved Hindu gods. He is also known by the name Ganapati, as well as many other epithets. He is the child of Shiva and Parvati (who were the very first yogis). He has an elephant head with huge ears, and a pot-bellied body of a human. He is often depicted riding on a mouse. Volumes have been written about the rich symbolism of the images, and there are many colorful stories about how he came to have an elephant’s head. If you have an interest in delving into the mythology, here are a few sites you can visit:


Ganesha Home Page

Encyclopedia Mythica

Ganesha is also associated with the Muladhara Chakra, the energy center at the base of the spine. It is said that he guards the gate of the Kundalini (spiritual energy) that lies coiled there.

Here is a mantra that is typically chanted to call upon the power of Ganesha (Ganapati) at the beginning of a new undertaking:


OM: The primordial sound of the universe.
GAM: the bija, or “seed” mantra of Ganesha (pronounced somewhat like the English word “gum”). Bijas hold the vibrational/energetic power of particular deities.
GANAPATAYE: “unto Ganapati”
NAMAHA: “I bow to; I honor; I offer myself to”

So, this mantra can be translated as:

I offer myself to Ganesha, the Lord of beginnings and the remover of obstacles.

Mantras can be sung, spoken aloud, or repeated silently to oneself. It is helpful to use a mala (string of prayer beads) to count repetitions and help keep awareness on the mantra.

I want to emphasize that one does not need to believe in a literal deity in order to sing and benefit from mantra practice. There are many ways we can relate to the sacred Names. Some people find that the mythology, stories, and images associated with the various gods and goddesses help them connect with the Divine Energy by providing concrete forms. Others can better relate to the deities as representations of qualities or energies that are within us. So, as we chant to Ganesha, we are invoking the ability to embrace the new, and to clear away any stale energy, negative thinking, or unhealthy habits that have become hindrances to becoming our best self.

There are many recordings of chants to Ganesha. Some of my favorites are by MC Yogi, who creatively blends hip-hop rhythms with traditional Sanskrit chants, and cleverly weaves in the symbolism and mythology into a rap song with a danceable beat. Check out his songs “Elephant Power “ and “Ganesh is Fresh” (available on iTunes) if you want to learn more about and celebrate Ganesha in a fun way.

May your new beginnings be auspicious and your path be clear as you move in the direction of your dreams. Jai Ganesha!

Every Possibility

Amid the thousand fears that flesh is heir to, there is also peace. 
When I look beneath the boulder of anxiety, 
the mountain of my doubt, 
I find the shining silence, 
and rest until my being vibrates with only one note.
This is what I bring into my day, 
he wordless sound of all creation, 
the empty space of every possibility 
poised and ready to take shape.

by Danna Faulds, from From Root to Bloom, Peaceable Kingdom Books © 2006
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