Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Bhasma to Bhasma

Look around today and you might see some of your friends going about their daily routine with a smudge of ashes (bhasma) on their foreheads.

For the Christian Church, today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Lent is a period of self-imposed austerity, during which people give up good things they enjoy. They abstain, in order to prepare themselves spiritually for Easter and for the rest of the year.

During the liturgy when the priest applies the ashes, he says, "Remember man that you are dust and to dust you shall return."

Dust and ashes applied to the body have always represented death and rebirth, transformation. As much as we struggle to protect life and avoid death, it is still good, regardless of your religious persuasion, to regularly consider death.

It will happen. It is not to be avoided. And disciplining ourselves to face our ultimate fate sets things in perspective and can give us courage.

We don't see much ascetic practice like this in American culture. So today might be a good day to take note of this behavior, even if you're not an observer of Lent.

Shiva, the originator of hatha yoga, is almost always depicted with his body covered in ashes. He is known as the god of destruction and transformation, the head of the Hindu trimurti, or trinity.

He sets the standard for out of the ordinary behavior. He lives in the woods and doesn't wear clothes. His hair is matted and tangled and piled on top of his head. But most of all, he is known for living outside the ordinary religious behaviors and mores of his time. He wasn't much for fitting in with the great Brahmin rituals, feasts and observances.

And that's what caused one of the troubles for which he is well known.

His father in law, Daksha, was a Brahmin priest. And since Shiva was such a non-conformist, he didn't invite his daughter and her husband to the great sacrifice.

She was humiliated. Unconsoled, she threw herself into the sacrificial fire and died.

Shiva in the form of Nataraj, the Lord of the Dance, came to the sacrifice and danced the tandava, the dance of destruction.

It was horrible. It was terrible. But it produced change. (In the end there was a reconciliation between the orderly, ritual-dominated religious form and asceticism.)

Shiva is the great liberator who breaks down everything, thus releasing energy for new growth. At times we need to be broken down, or upset ourselves on purpose, deny our egos the pleasures they crave, to release energy for growth.

In India, there are still holy men and women who imitate Shiva, even his most shocking characteristics. They are known as Sadhus. Dolf Harsuiker says this about these holy people:
In their pursuit of the 'inner light', the liberation from all earthly bonds, the 'knowledge' of the Absolute, they have chosen the way of asceticism and yoga. This implies a systematic 'reprogramming' of the body and mind by various methods, such as celibacy, renunciation, religious discipline, meditation and austerities. The general term with which these methods are designated is sadhana, literally 'the means of achieving a particular goal', from which the word Sadhu is derived.
I like what he says. You can literally reprogram your body and mind with practices you do and the intentions that motivate them.

Today when you see someone with ashes on his forehead. Take a moment to consider death and the possibility of great transformation.

Even if someone's looking, stand there, like that odd-ball Shiva, and pick one foot up off the floor. Grab your ankle behind you with one hand and raise the other arm. There you are in the simplest form of the pose natarajasana, the pose dedicated to the Lord of the Dance, the destroyer, Shiva, the emblem of transformation.

May yoga bring you the transformation you desire.

Don't just read about it. Get up. Experience it. Experience yoga!

Kevin Perry

p.s., The Sanskrit Word of the Day from my previous Daily Yoga Tip was setu. Setu means bridge as in setu bhanda sarvangasana, the bridge pose. Setu bhanda sarvangasana literally means to construct a bridge with your whole body pose.

p.p.s., Today's Sanskrit Word of the Day is pada. I'll tell you what it means next time.

p.p.p.s., The Experience Sanskrit workshop is a very fun, lively and exciting way to learn and remember the Sanskrit names of the yoga poses you do every day. We're offering it next in Saint Charles, Missouri at Jane's House of Wellbeing. Register here. Visit to learn more. Even if you cannot participate, will you please tell your friends about this great opportunity?

Copyright 2008. All rights reserved, Mo Yoga LLC.
Kevin Perry
Mo Yoga LLC
1305 Elmerine Ave
Jefferson City, MO 65101

(573) 680-6737


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