Updated: Mar 11, 2021
There is a story inside everyone, a story that takes us from B to D, birth to death and is in constant, perpetual unfolding motion.
In Indian, Hindu's are preparing to celebrate and honour the first yogi, Lord Shiva in a special celebration associated with the ancient story of his marriage to the Goddess Parvati. The Maha Shivaratri is the great night of Shiva which this year takes place tomorrow, March 11th. Pujas will be offered and fasting undertaken in order to receive the blessing of this great deity.
In the ancient yoga tradition and particularly in the Tantric philosophy, mythology and story are the foundation upon which practice is built and brought to life. Story is powerful because it touches us beyond the physical and grants entry to the unseen subtle rivers that flow deep within our imaginal realms - connecting us to feelings, memories, thoughts and ideas. Stories capture our imagination their essence is reflected within our own interpretation of what we hear and ignites inner expression to rise to the surface and express itself often in creative or intelligently enhanced form.
The marriage of Lord Shiva to the Goddess Parvati symbolises the ultimate union of masculine and feminine, sun and moon, consciousness and form and the alchemical nature of yoga which infuses everything through its integrative practice and brings about balance and oneness. Lord Shiva's destructive action is the culmination of the three fold cycle expressed through his cosmic dance of bliss, the Ananda Tandava. Brahma is the creator Lord, Vishnu is the sustainer and Shiva is the destroyer and all three are said to be at constant play in the universe. We can experience this interplay in the breath; witness its presence in the rhythm of a day or see it evidenced in nature's constant seasonal flow: buds appear on the trees in Spring as new life begins, petals unfold into flowers which bloom for a while in Summer before wilting in the Autumn, returning to the earth to be transformed into nutrients during the Winter ready for new life to emerge again next Spring. But hold that moment, is there is more to this dance?
Nataraja is the name given to Shiva as Lord of the dance and recognised in the asana form in which the adept balances on one leg whilst reaching back with both arms in a deep backbend to capture the foot. However the dance begins in a different form, one that displays the yoga pancakrityas or 5 actions: Shrishti (creation) , Sthiti (preservation), Samhara (destruction), Tirobhava (illusion) and Anugraha (salvation). These last two provide deeper meaning to the whole cosmic dance.
The ring of fire in which the dance takes place, known as the parahabhamandala represents time; each flame has either 3 or 5 points to it. Dance is an intrinsic part of human culture, binding communities together in celebration of life and death and enabling the processing of human emotions which are like the dance, energy in motion! In the murti that depicts this form of Shiva, he holds in one hand a two headed drum, the damaru, upon which at each beat creation arises as a universe made of sound. His standing leg is stable, it supports and sustains the dance while underneath his foot a small demon character squirms. This is our lower nature, our ignorance or misunderstanding being held down but not killed as this would upset the natural balance of the universe. In another hand Shiva holds in his palm fire, agni the element which purifies by burning up. These 3 essences are in constant play. Yet look again at the arm placed across the heart - from the front it appears to block or conceal something. Trace awareness along the arm to the hand which points down to the foot of the lifted leg, the toe of which points up. Known as the gajahasta mudra it signifies that which is hidden is where we must go to reveal truth. Above the hand pointing down, the more familiar Abhaya mudra seeks to protect, literally symbolising have no fear!
Our greatest difficulties and biggest challenges are usually those that reveal treasures of knowledge and understanding, discovering that we can overcome mundane obstacles that hinder and frustrate, recover from illness, regain our purpose after a defeat or find the innate strength and intelligence to navigate our way through a particularly arduous trial. Perhaps even more poignant an interpretation is also that our journey doesn't need to be perfect! Everything we experience is part of a bigger picture that is part of the great cycle and the things that felt messy, the bits we deny or hide they are as much a part of our story as the triumphs.
In ancient times our ancestors, without access to the scientific explanations and answers as to why things happened, looked more closely for signs that revealed. They relied on symbols not because of what they stood for but for where they pointed to. Nataraja, in this opening form seen from the front appears to be using his arm to conceal or block his heart, but look from the side and you will see the opening between heart and arm as a cave that calls to be entered. In yoga one definition of mantra is expansion of the mind, expanded awareness allows the mind to penetrate into what was previously hidden. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist said "the cave you fear to enter holds the treasures that you seek."
Mythological stories use techniques to point towards truths within ourselves. Through metaphor, simile and motif they subtly shift our perspective and allow us to relate in a new way to our own stories - to literally see them in another light. What we feared or denied or stifled can be revealed as a treasure that taught us something, that helped our journey to unfold and brought us to where we are now. With this refined knowing we are able to make more sense of the journey.
Campbell identified a particular mythological structure present in all great stories which he famously named 'The Hero's Journey'. It consists of 4 tenets that together create a story arc: separation, initiation, ordeal and return. These can be witness in our life dance. At certain time we are called upon to detach from an old way of being and venture toward a new one. At these times, whether it be moving house, starting a new job or shifting into a new life stage, there will be both excitement and fear and we will inevitably come face to face with our own vulnerability. Think back to a pivotal moment in your life when you stood on the verge of some great change; did it feel like a huge threshold was about to be crossed? During each momentous journey there will be an initiation into a new way of being. This is very often assisted assisted by a guru or helpful guide who points the way but cannot take you there. So as you venture on alone you will inevitably have to undergo some kind of ordeal and overcome a challenge that will require you to to face fears, see failure as opportunity and potentially defeat a real or imagined opponent. From this ordeal however knowledge is gained as a gift with which you return triumphantly, graced with more strength, greater awareness and resonant self belief.
We are both our story and also not our story. Perhaps rather we are the product of what we take from our story and then use to fuel or fund the next chapter. In asana practice, the final form of Natarjasana is an unrealistic goal for most of us. When we understand the meaning behind the form though, we see into the journey and it may be this that calls to us as the symbols take on new and very personal meaning. The serene gaze of Lord Shiva as he dances the Cosmos into annihilation is one of truth, calm serenity amidst the fires that blaze for he understands that life follows death follows life - there is no final destination.
With a new framework for our own story we can wake up our imagination, fire up our soul and seek ways of living that will benefit ourselves and others. We can begin to develop a deeper relationship to the unending cycle of everything and dismantle the scaffolding that we carefully erected towards a definitive end goal, allowing our own dance to spiral us again toward this alchemically integrated dance of bliss.