Oh My Little Elephant-Headed Baby God! The Power of Myth in Yoga

Myth is an attempt to narrate a whole human experience, of which the purpose is too deep, going too deep in the blood and soul, for mental explanation or description.
~D.H. Lawrence

Last night in yoga teacher training, we spent some time on Bhakti, or the practice of yoga as divine worship.  In this process, we discussed a number of Hindu gods and the myths surrounding them.  Today’s post represents my reflection on my favorite of the stories we considered, the story of the origins of Ganesha.

Before I continue, a bit about the use here of the word “myth.”  Sometimes people understand myth to mean a false story.  However, a myth is simply an old story that is accepted as true in some fashion, and that helps us to explain the world through a particular perspective.  Every culture, including every religious culture, has myths.  The factual accuracy of the stories is less important than the shared belief in what the story represents.  And so, back to Ganesha…

As with most gods, there are multiple stories of how Ganesha came to be.  But, the one I was particularly compelled by is as follows:

Parvati was the consort of Shiva, the destroyer.  Shiva, while very much in love with Parvati, was not always the most attentive of husbands or most responsive to Parvati’s needs.  Parvati, being wildly passionately in love with Shiva wanted to be with him and to bear his child.  Shiva wasn’t so interested, and was more focused on his meditation practice, which required him to go off alone for long periods.  As he prepared to leave again, Parvati wept and begged him to stay with her.  Refusing, Shiva gave Parvati a piece of cloth from his clothing and told her to hold it as a reminder of him and their love.  Crying over the cloth and holding it to her heart, Parvati’s tear fell upon the fabric.  From that union of Shiva and Parvati, Ganesha was born.  Of course, Parvati was thrilled.  One day, Parvati goes to take her bath and posts Ganesha at the door to preserve her privacy.  Shiva coincidentally returned at that moment and, seeing Ganesha guarding the door (but not knowing who he is) demanded to be permitted in.  Ganesha, a good son, refuses him entry, as his mother had instructed.  In a fury, Shiva strikes off Ganesha’s head.  When Parvati learns what Shiva has done, she is (reasonably) furious.  She commands Shiva to go away until  he can fix the situation.  Apparently unable to locate Ganesha’s head, Shiva acquires the head of an elephant and uses it to bring Ganesha back to life.  Parvati is appeased and they continue on, a happy family of three with their little elephant-headed boy.

So, you may be asking yourself, why did this story particularly strike me.  First, it’s just amusing and the notion of an elephant-headed baby is pretty cute.  Second, I love the idea of overcoming obstacles that is present throughout the story of Ganesha (and he is seen as the remover of obstacles).  Shiva encounters a pretty big obstacle to motherhood when Shiva again leaves, but her desire to be a mother and love for Shiva is enough to overcome that barrier.  Ganesha encounters a rather large obstacle in losing his head, which is then repaired.  Shiva encounters the obstacle of Ganesha barring him from Parvati and then the challenge of figuring out how to “fix” the situation, and he meets that challenge.  This message is a great one for a yoga class.

We all have obstacles to our practice, whether a meditative practice or an asana practice or a devotional practice.  In asana, some barriers are physical and some are mental/emotional.  But, all barriers can be overcome.  The challenge is to figure out how.

Physical barriers might be overcome with the use of props. This morning in class, I watched this in action as my instructor, Erik, assisted a student in creating a prop to support her wrists during L shaped handstand.  The prop made the pose accessible for her.  Another route to overcoming physical barriers might be to alter the pose, fitting it to the body and the body’s needs.  This requires us to consider what it is we are trying to accomplish with the pose (physically and energetically) and altering it such that it reaches those goals but without creating bodily problems. In the same class, during the inversion, some students took the option of Viparita Karani (legs up the wall), which is a wonderful inversion and, if done with arms overhead, can also open the shoulders in a similar way to L shaped handstand.

Emotional/mental barriers can be harder to identify, but can be even more powerful than the physical.  I’ve posted before about fear and its impact on the practice of yoga.  Fear can certainly be a major obstacle.  Fear during inversions is very common.  The reasons for the fear sometimes have to be teased out and addressed, perhaps through logic and perhaps through experience by utilizing props or other supports.  Other emotional obstacles, such as ego, attachment and aversion, etc. are also a part of the practice, and overcoming them is a part of our growth and self-realization.

For these reasons, the story of Ganesha’s origin appeals to me.  After all, if Parvati can go from a childless lonely spouse to a happy mother of a little elephant-headed god then I can surely work through my balance issues and help my students through whatever is standing in the way of their practices.  Perhaps this story can help me do that.

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