My friend and fellow Prana teacher, Rachel, came to class to Prana Yoga one year around Thanksgiving time and brought 9-10 of her visiting siblings and/or their spouses. I thought it was really cool to have such a huge family, together practicing yoga. Rachel comes from healthy and active stock, everyone seemed very athletic, fit, and capable. Despite being all super fit, there were a few of them who were new to yoga. I welcomed everyone to class asked the class if they had requests or injuries I could be careful with. One of Rachel's family member's, one who was relatively new to yoga, raised his hand and asked, pointing to the 4.5 ft. statue behind me, "Why is that guy standing on a baby?" What a fantastic question! And suddenly I began to wonder how many people walk in and out of our studio each day and see this beautiful, huge statue of Siva with his many arms, surrounded by a wreath of fire, a snake around his belly, dancing dreadlocks, standing on an impish creature and wonder, "what is going on with that cat?"
So, yoga synthesizes ancient wisdom with our modern circumstances to provide a practice for being in the world and for understanding ourselves. Plus, it just feels good. Yoga's many ancient symbols and philosophical tenants can seem not only confusing to modern, western practitioners, but also down right alienating. As a teacher, I'm always asking the question, "So what? What does all this ancient wisdom and symbolic gobbildy gook have to do with waking up each morning, dragging my butt outta bed, and going out into the world to live another day?" Well, let's see.
So, the Dancing Siva, or Siva Nataraj (meaning royal dancer), is a statue that tells many stories and can point to personal pertinence in our current lives, regardless of spiritual or non-spiritual tradition. To understand the mystery of the squashed baby, maybe we could look at several of the symbols in this statue.
First, Shiva represents an idea of the creator who propels the continuous dance of all things. Shiva's limbs illustrate this cosmic dance of birth, life, death, and rebirth. In his first hand, Shiva's holding a drum, laying down the beat, the vibration that quickens everything in the universe. Modern science says that everything is vibration--frequency--from the smallest particle to the largest galaxy. As a musician, I like that idea of the universe being created by DJ Shiva laying down a steady backbeat that makes everything in the universe pulse. That's cool.
In his next hand Shiva is holding out his hand, fingers up, palm out, in the Abhaya mudra, a hand gesture that represents sustaining. By this, Shiva's saying, "Hey, man. I got you." Things were created and then are sustained or stay in motion.
Shiva's third hand and holds a flame. It says in not so many words not to get too attached because everything changes. Things wilt, fade, wither and die. Physics 101: energy and matter cannot be created or destroyed, rather it simply takes on a different form, leaves fall, become mulch, soil, nutrients, reabsorbed , become another leaf, etc. This might be a practical understanding of reincarnation. Let's not get into that here. What I'm getting at is that Shiva is suggesting that change is the program, his zippo lighter is the catalyst.
Shiva's fourth arm crosses his chest concealing his heart. He's telling us that you don't get a free ride to know the heart of God, or your own deep divinity. To know this heart you have to work to see it. And translate "God" however you want, the divine part of yourself, a supreme being, you choose. Either way, you can't be a wall flower in this cosmic dance of existence. To really appreciate the fact that everything is moving you gotta to join the dance, gotta shake your booty, gotta be willing to scuff your shoes and sweat. But hey, the dance enthralls us and through it, you come to know yourself and the whole universe. Don't worry, it will only take the rest of your life and maybe beyond. We've got time.
Ok. This still doesn't explain why Shiva is doing Riverdance on the baby. So, with one leg, Shiva is standing on a creature, not really a baby, known as Apasmara. It looks like a baby, sometimes a demon, sometimes pig-like, and while this seems a little callous of Shiva, this action is actually quite compassionate. That's because this Apasmara isn't a baby but a creature that represents our own ignorance. He knows our divine potential and won't stand for anything less, I have a pun permit so back off. So, while one leg stands on this demon-thing, his other leg is lifting in a gesture that invites us to rise from that old, ignorant self into a new understanding of ourselves. He's revealing our true nature and with that perspective also revealing to us a new relationship with the world, new circumstances, and even a new relationship with our old circumstances. He is the dance partner inviting us to rejoin the dance of our life, with new understanding, through the continuous dance of birth, sustaining, death, and rebirth. He's telling us to constantly reinvent our relationships, our jobs, and our passions. And he's doing it all with the stillness of a God while the universe is burning around him. Pretty cool.
And THAT is why Shiva is standing on that thing that looks like a baby. My hope is at very least we understand this symbol a little better. Maybe this week when we are practicing yoga at Prana under Shiva's calm gaze, in all his dynamic magnificence, we might remember some of the reasons we practice yoga. Maybe we can use the symbol of Shiva standing on Apasmara to allow this transforming practice of yoga to give us the strength, hope, and clarity, to take action in our lives and commit to reinvent it over and over again in this wild dance of our own existence. See you in class.