Dreaming of Hanuman

My dreams are usually pretty vivid.  When I wake up, I can normally recount the dream, complete with sensory details and emotions.  I’m a fairly lucid dreamer as well; I know when I’m dreaming, I can sometimes change the course of the dream with a bit of effort, and I can wake myself up if things aren’t going well (like if some crazy beast monster is chasing me).

However, last night’s dream was neither vivid nor lucid.  I can only remember one thing, and I was fully convinced that I was not dreaming.  This was my dream: I was able to achieve full Hanumanasana on both sides, no sweat. 

Photo courtesy Yoga Journal

This is crazy talk for a couple of reasons. First, as a triathlete, I am constantly at battle with my hips, which are more often than not tighter than the hips of an 80 year old woman. It takes serious coaxing and patience to get my hips to cooperate during yoga. However, yoga has been the only thing capable of keep my hips healthy, and aside from a tight IT band every now and then, I can attribute yoga to keeping me relatively injury free. 

Secondly, in my dream, I was fully convinced that my ability to do Hanumanasana was real, that I had been doing it for years, and that it was the easiest pose in the entire world.  Au contraire.  I have never been able to get anywhere close to full Hanumanasana.  In fact, I can’t remember a time in my life where I was even relatively flexible.  I was kicked out of gymnastics as a kid for being too tall and too rigid. 

So, if physically achieving Hanumanasana is nothing but a goal right now, why was my dream mind so convinced that I’m capable of it?  Not to get all psychoanalytical on you, but what is the message of this dream?

I have a couple of theories.  First, Hanumanasana requires intense openness, and a willingness to put aside the impossible.  To echo the story of Hanuman, it is literally a leap of faith.  Perhaps it is time to reestablish a beginner’s mind, to look past what I think is possible and attempt to achieve things I’ve never even considered before.  Maybe the dream is a subtle message to myself to try a little openness. 

Secondly, Hanuman is representative of devotion, as his unwavering devotion to Rama gave him the power to do great things in the name of his beloved.  Maybe it’s time to reassess my loyalties, to honor those who deserve it and fix my attention on loved ones who need my help. 

I suppose if I take the dream literally, it could be telling me to work on my bendiness and make Hanumanasana a featured part of my daily practice.  While this could be a good thing (my hips could use the work for sure), I’m leaning towards a more symbolic interpretation.  I’ve always been more of a Ganesha girl myself, but there’s plenty to learn from Hanuman.

Empty Your Cup

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki

We live a stone’s throw from the university, all the signs of the new semester are upon us.  Freshmen are moving into the dorms and are perusing the campus with a mix of excitement and nervousness, ready to take their first hesitant steps as adults.  The band is rehearsing in the quad alongside the cheerleaders, who are practicing their routines to the music in preparation for the first home football game.  In my own little world, I am revamping syllabi, rearranging desks, and getting ready for my first day back to school since starting my maternity leave nearly six months ago. 

To quote one of my favorite shows, “Battlestar Gallactica,” “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.”  Every year, the freshman come.  Every year, I prepare for the upcoming semester.  Living this kind of cyclical, repetitive life, it can be easy to become complacent, or bored, or even haughty.  It’s easy to say, “I know how to do this,” or, “I know how this is going to play out.”  And when that happens, when we become such experts that nothing is new or exciting anymore, that’s when the repetitive becomes dull, and life becomes nothing more than a boring series of events that are bound to happen again and again.

When life verges on the repetitive, it’s useful to turn to Zen master Shunryu Suzuki.  In his beautiful masterpiece Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki urges us to retain our original mind, the mind of a beginner, which is already rich and sufficient.  A beginner’s mind is always open, always ready to learn, always unlimited.  If we want to learn anything, we have to rid ourselves of our preconceived notions and be open to any possibilities.  I must become that hesitant freshman once again.  I must be that first-year teacher, unsure of what lies ahead of me.  I must be a willing learning, not a jaded expert. 

One of my favorite Zen stories runs along these lines.  It’s called “A Cup of Tea”:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.  Nan-in served tea.  He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.  The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself.  “It is overfull. No more will go in!”  “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations.  How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

As I begin this new semester, I will take the time to empty my cup.  As I step on my mat for yoga practice each day, I will empty my cup.  I will embrace my beginner’s mind, and I will emerge all the richer for my practices. 

Happy first day of school, everyone.

Yoga and the Gita

When I first became interested in yoga nigh on 15 years ago, I did it purely for the asanas.  I wanted to be lithe and bendy, and I wanted to be able to stick some impressively twisty poses.  As a teenager who was raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there was no way I was ready for the mind blowing and alien concepts of yogic philosophy.  But in college, I was exposed to the Tao Te Ching, which led (eventually, after a difficult decade of complete faithlessness) to Buddhist philosophies, which has in turn piqued my interest in the metaphysical realm of yoga and Hinduism.  While I’m not gung ho about one particular philosophy or theology or another, I have more or less bought into the idea that I’m part of something greater, even if that “greater” thing is simply derived from notion that matter is neither created nor destroyed.  If the energy from my body is eventually used to fertilize a tree, then I’m down with that.  I’d like to think that there’s something more, a Way, the Force, or the like (I’m not as keen on anthropomorphic gods at the moment, but I respect the concept), but if all I get is tree fertilizer, that’s still infinitely better than the vast nothingness I feared during my Catholic upbringing.

For a variety of reasons, the most important being that I’m ready for a little mind expansion, I’ve spent a good chunk of the summer reading Hindu texts.  I just finished reading the Bhagavad Gita for the first time, and I think I understand why it is a pivotal text for the study of yoga, and why it is also revered as an accessible handbook for life in general.

Just as a bit of background, the Bhagavad Gita is small section of a massive Indian epic, the Mahabharata.  In this section, the hero Arjuna must face his kinsmen in battle in order to gain control of the kingdom, and he’s naturally feeling uneasy about this.  How can he kill his kin and remain free from sin?  Luckily, the god Krishna is his charioteer, and the Gita is both Krishna’s argument to Arjuna to join the battle, and also an explanation of the nature of man and the Supreme Spirit.  In the end, Arjuna does indeed fight, and emerges victorious.

I’ve read the Rig Veda and the classic Upanishads, but to me, only the Gita translates well to modern (and Western) readers.  Not only does it provide a manual for living in harmony, but it also presents a concept of the Divine that allows for the worship of deities and for those (like me) who’d rather contemplate the oneness of all things.  The Bhagavad Gita may feature an anthropomorphic god, but Krishna himself states that he is “the beginning and the middle and the end of all things,” that he is “what is and what is not” (9:18-19).  To me, this doctrine of oneness sounds an awful lot like Buddhist or Taoist concepts of equality and interdependence.  The Gita transcends religion, and is an ideal vehicle for contemplation.

The yoga described in the Gita really has little to nothing to do with the asanas, but I think the philosophy of the Gita could be applied to asana practice.  Krishna explains to Arjuna that the work of yoga can lead to the Supreme if it is done selflessly, without attachment, and without expectation for a reward.  Similarly, while it might be great to be bendy, and it might be a worthwhile goal to achieve difficult and striking poses, my asana practice is the most fulfilling when I can surrender to the physical work without needing to meet the exacting demands of my ego.  Krishna declares that freedom from the cycle of rebirth and death is the natural consequence of  faithfulness and the work of yoga; it need not be sought after, and practitioners can continue free from attachment to outcomes.  On a similar (although not so grand or consequential) note, physical well-being is a natural outcome of practicing the asanas, whether intended or not.  It too can be achieved without attachment.

So there you go: ancient yogic philosophy and the Western focus on the asanas can coexist peacefully, and can even work to advance one another.  Is the Gita necessary for fulfilling asana practice?  Probably not, but if you’re looking to delve into yogic philosophy, it’s a great place to start.  Happy reading.