I believe in story, and I believe in practice… As a teacher of yoga I believe my job is to inspire others on their own path of practice. (I also have a role as an educator but that is another topic for another time.) One of the primary tools I use to inspire others is storytelling, as story has helped shape my own life and given me comfort and strength in times of challenge. So in today’s post I share a bit of my own story, as well as a re-telling of one of my all time favorite Hindu myths. This storytelling is a way of clarifying some of my own thoughts on the value yogic practice, deep longing, and our great desire for true intimacy, it is also something I share in the hopes that it might shed some light on your own journey or illuminate your own path in some way.
Yoga & My Own Hero’s Journey
When I walked into my very first yoga class I was a newly divorced young mother, broken hearted, exhausted and confused. It seemed my whole life had been a string of painful mistakes and poor choices, shot through with much grief and uncertainty. I had always felt there was a greater sense of magic and wonder to be accessed in life, and yet I had been unable to experience it except in brief and fleeting moments, and I was beginning to believe that in reality life was nothing more than a series of mundane struggles and disappointments.
I was introduced to the unassuming movement practice we call Yoga in a friends living room in Tofino BC, and with it I was given access to a new way of experiencing my body, my thoughts, my emotions, and that most mysterious aspect of Self which we may call Spirit. This heightened sense of awareness that included all aspects of my being was what drew me firmly onto the path of practice. I knew, deep in my gut, that this path could offer healing by reducing some of the fragmentation that was causing me so much suffering in my life.
In the Tantric tradition out of which Hatha Yoga arose, there is an understanding that body & spirit are an expression of one unified source of Consciousness, or primal life force intelligence. And yet to be an embodied being is to often experience these as separate aspects of self. Now while this experience of seeming separateness is the very thing that precipitates the longing for union (and makes great adventure stories of our lives), the feeling of separateness also causes us great pain as it engenders a sense of being incomplete, of missing something. And often we end up looking in all the wrong places for the experience of union and interconnectedness that we seek.
Some of these early Tantrikas began to practice & teach what has been called Kaya Sadhana- an expansion of Consciousness in and through the body. The goal was a more complete enlightenment than had previously been taught- an enlightenment that did not deny the physical body bur rather allowed for a re-union between body & spirit. And whether you know this or not, simply by doing the practices we are often given a glimpse of what this re-union might feel like, just like I experienced when I did my first yoga class on the carpeted floor of my friends living room. Remember that many great adventures begin with just such a glimpse!
So now let me tell you a great story, the story of Shiva & Parvati (told in my own words), a story that I find to be a beautiful allegory for these teachings…
The Union of Shiva & Parvati
Once upon a time there was a lovely young princess, the daughter of Lord Himavat, the mountain king. Her name was Parvati and she was beautiful & intelligent, accomplished in all the worldly ways that a young princess of her time should be, and yet possessed of a very curious and seeking mind, a restless heart. She was not satisfied with mere book learning, or worldly attainment. She longed for something more, but she knew not what it was.
One day on the banks of the river Ganga, she heard the Yogins speaking of Shiva, the Great Lord of Yoga, and as soon as she heard his name a thrill ran through her and a certainty arose within her- this is Who she sought, this is What was missing. But as she inquired further she found out that Shiva, the great renunciate, had withdrawn from the world and had been engaged in fierce meditative tapasya for eons. But this knowledge only empowered Parvati’s desire. She searched high and low for him, the longing in her heart growing with each day that passed, and eventually she did find the secret grove where he engaged his practices, but nothing would make him open his eyes and gaze upon her, despite how much she willed him to do so.
Years went by and her longing changed her, it eroded all previous desires until there was only one left burning in her heart, union with Shiva. And so eventually she told her parents she was leaving her mountain palace, taking off her fine dresses & jewels, and putting on the simple clothing of the Yogini. She walked into the mountains, desire aflame in her heart, and she began her own practices of Yoga. She meditated for decades, repeating the mantra Om Namaha Shivaye in her mind, her practice so fierce and so full of longing that she melted the snow on the high mountain peaks and the gods were afraid she would set the world on fire.
Her desire was so powerful that eventually even cool & remote Shiva felt it, and opened his eyes….
When his eyes gazed upon the world once more he remembered who She was- for he had known her before, a thousand times and more they had danced this dance of separation, longing, and re-union. And so he got up from his meditation and went to her, beheld her glowing from within from the light of her tapasya, and knew her to be The One Who Completes Him. He took her in his arms and they began to dance the Ananda Tandava, the dance of creative joy that turns the world and brings universes into manifestation.
What This Story Means to Me…
Every time I hear this story I am reminded that this divine union between Material Reality (Parvati) and Spiritual Consciousness (Shiva) is actually a love play that is being carried out continuously in every cell of my being. With this remembrance I am humbled and awed by the knowledge that my simple life is grounded in earthly delight, inspired by sacred longing, and experienced through the dynamic union of spirit and matter that is my human body. It might seem like poetry or metaphor, but I see it as so much more than that, and indeed my studies into Ayurveda, Herbalism, Tantric & Buddhist meditation have only deepened this sense of knowing- the body we inhabit is made of primal intelligence, no different than the primal intelligence of the material world we inhabit & the great mystery of the cosmos. This intelligence is governed by certain laws of nature, expresses itself in patterns that are unique and yet also repeatable, and is the source of all knowledge and inspiration. This remembrance awakens curiosity and wonder in me on a daily basis, qualities that make me feel alive, qualities I think we all need to feel regularly.
This story also reminds me that like Parvati, we often need to engage in practices that support us in awakening to “all that we are”, practices that help us to refine our longing so that it leads us in the right direction. Our own tapasya may include more traditional yogic practices such as asana, meditation, mantra & pranaymana, but it may also include healing modalities such as psychotherapy, working with our addictions and dealing with trauma. And certainly all of these practices will be empowered by ensuring that we are caring for our bodies and minds in practical ways, such as eating a diet that nourishes, getting enough good quality rest, and living a lifestyle that does not tax our nervous systems more than is necessary. Often we need a mandala of practices that work best for us as individuals. That has certainly been true for me, and for most of the people I know, and is just another example of how rich and varied this human experience can be.
I started this article stating that I believe in story, and in practice, and truly I do not see them as separate. It is my hope that you will find practices that will nourish the longing in your heart and enrich your life greatly. I pray that you will find practices that will lead you forward into great adventures of intimacy and revelation; practices that help you live your personal adventure to the fullest. Life is a great dance of creativity and learning, and our time on this earthly plane is short, let us awaken!
Om Namaha Shivaye…