When I first started teaching astanga yoga one of my first students was an ex-submariner. He’d spent three months underwater with 100 people. Not that I ever wanted to be a submariner but I imagine the freedom we have now would still be amazing compared to being in a tin can under the artic. And this was before the internet. How did we cope??
People sometimes ask me what I would have done if I hadn’t taught yoga. I spent a few years working in the homeless sector, so may be I would have continued with that. If not that and may be this is for next life I would have been an army medic, would have helped if I’d actually spent much time at school though.
One of the hardest things about self practice, as in on your own in your living-room/bedroom is not getting distracted and getting started. Put any tech away the night before and keep away from your phone. Set a few things up the night before. If you are the sort of person who has lots of thoughts, of things to do, while you practice put a pad and pen out, then once you have written it down you don’t have to think about it again. But rule number one is DO NOT beat your self up. There is no failure, all yoga is beneficial.
Yesterday we ended with Karna, so that is where I will start. Well actually we need to go back a whole era. Back to Parashurama, Rama with an axe. Parashurama is an avatar of Vishnu, as are Rama and Krishna. Vishnu has quite a few avatars, not all men, and one where Vishnu’s avatar is twins. Nara and Narayana, who are reborn as inseparable Arjuna and Krishna. Anyway back to Parashurama. He was a brahmin but pretty pissed off with all the Kshatriyas, the warrior caste. A kshatriya has a duty, a dharma, as does everyone. But a Kshatriyas dharma is to support those who need help. To maintain a balanced society. Not to take and take from mother earth and all the people just for their own benefit. That is adharma. And as we know Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita ‘I reincarnate when there is a rise in adharma, to right that wrong and bring back dharma’. So Parashurama rights that wrong by getting out his big fuck off axe and cutting some heads off. Parashurama will only teach Brahmins. He has already taught Bhishma and Drona. Karna wanted to be a great warrior so he pretended to be a brahmin and asked Parashurama to teach him. One day Parashurama took rest on Karna’s knee. When he awoke he saw that a tick had bitten into Karna’s leg and blood was coming out. ‘Why did you not wake me you must be in lots of pain?’ Karna replied ‘I didn’t want to wake you’. Instead of being proud of Karna Parashurama realised only a kshatriya would stand the pain without flinching. So he threw Karna out of his school saying you are the best warrior but you will forget everything I have taught you in your hour of need.
So who should be the next king? Shantanu had three sons and only one had survived, that was Bhishma, so no grandchildren there. His other two sons had failed to have children but their wives did, via Vyasa. So neither Dhritarashtra or Pandu were direct descendants. Pandu remember was given the throne as Dhritarashtra even though older was blind. But Pandu is now dead. Yudhishthira was the first born of all the cousins. But Duryodhana has good claim to the throne as his father Dhritarashtra is sitting on. Duryodhana was born at the same time is Bhima, the second Pandava. Bhima was super strong (nearly as strong as Hanuman) and he loved throwing the Kauravas about. So one day the Kauravas decided to poison Bhima but there is an interesting twist that we will discover tomorrow…
We are a bunch of amazing people. I’m constantly inspired by my students and always surprised when I find out they can do more than get into padmasana. It’s not often that I cry, but this brought a little tear to my eyes. Claire had only just started coming to class before we had to close.
It’s on my desert island. And yes the Mahabharata is the book I’d take. We ended yesterday with Arjuna being this amazing archer. We now come to a classic story. Drona wants to test the Kauravas and Pandavas and so he sets up a straw parrot on a tree branch and asks all of them to line up and aim their arrows at the parrot. Drona goes along the line and asks each in turn what they can see. Yudhishthira says ‘I can see the parrot’, Duryodhana wants to out whit Yudhishthira and says ‘I see a straw parrot sitting on a branch’, Bhima wants to out do Duryodhana so says ‘I can see the straw parrot sitting on a branch of a tree under the clouds’. Then finally Arjuna speaks up ‘I see the eye’. It’s pretty obvious who was the best archer and the analogy is often used to describe focus during yoga. One day Drona and Arjuna were out in the woods when they met a forest dweller called Ekalavya. Ekalavya knew who Drona and Arjuna were and begged Drona to teach him archery. Drona was very dismissive, saying he didn’t teach the low caste. Which is a bit rich coming from Drona who had already switched caste from Brahmin to Ksatriya. But Ekalavya was not put out and made an earth statue of Drona and practiced day after day. A year latter Drona and Arjuna are back in the same forest this time they are out hunting. Suddenly Arjuna’s dog comes back muzzled with but unhurt with arrows. Arjuna is amazed and says to Drona ‘who did this, they are better than me, you said I’d be the greatest archer?’. Out steps Ekalavya. Drona asks who taught him? Ekalavya shows him the statue he made. Drona says ‘well if I am your teacher I require payment’ ‘Anything you want’ replies Ekalavya. ‘Give me your right thumb’ asks Drona. Ekalavya chops off his thumb without a blink. What can we make of this story. Ekalavya seems hard done by to say the least. Shunned because of his caste and Arjuna’s insecurity. There is only one small temple in India dedicated to Ekalavya. Next to it is a dharma shala, a place of rest for pilgrims.
At the end of the Kaurava and Pandavas training Drona arranges a tournament to showcase all his pupils to Hastinapura. Everyone had come to see Arjuna. And when Arjuna showed how amazing he was with a bow and arrow everyone was impressed. But then suddenly Karna steps out saying ‘I can do that and better’. With that he picks up a bow and arrow and proves his word. ‘Who are you’ ask Drona. ‘I am Karna son or a chariot driver’ (he didn’t know he was really son of Surya and Kunti). ‘A chariot driver can not compete here, it’s only for Ksatriya’ says Drona. Duryodhana realises he has a chance to get one over on the Pandavas and jumps up and makes Karna a prince of part of his land. And now it seemed that the Pandavas and Kauravas were going to start a fight in front the people of Hastinapura. Suddenly Kunti faints, realising Karna was her son. Bhisma and Drona use this excuse to end the tournament there by saving the two sets of cousins from killing each other but also Kunti having to explain who Karna was. But where has Karna learnt all these skills, ah now that is a story for tomorrow…
Happiness and sadness, success and failure. We all know these feelings and while we prefer happiness and success and also praise our selves and others when we/they are successful. We judge ourselves and others on our/their failures. Much better would be acknowledgement of happiness and success in a quiet way and when we are sad or fail not to judge the sadness or failure but how we respond to that sadness and failure, what we do with it, sadness and failure can lead to amazing times of creativity. And sometimes just sitting on your asana is the right thing to do. We will all face sadness and failure. Accept these feelings, your failure. But do not hold on to them, just as the wind moves from sunny south to chilly north and back again. Everything changes. Do not hold on to either happiness or sadness.
Thank you all for sending me quizzes, funny videos, something to learn, questions. Your support has been a real blessing, I’m honoured to have such good friends.
Yesterday I gave you a brief list of names of people you need to keep in mind. You’ll find that the Mahabharata is really many stories inside one story, some of those small stories are insightful. Historically the basic story was called Jaya meaning victory and then more got added and it became Bharata and then eventually Mahabharata. There is no complete finished version. There are critical editions. But both north and south India have slightly different tales. An that is the wonderful thing about stories they can be told and retold around the fire, shared.
Drona, the poor brahmin who became a warrior and has a grudge against King Draupada. Well one day he see the Pandavas and Kauravas trying to get a ball they have lost down a well. Drona picks up a blade of grass and throws it down the well and then another and another blade of grass. The first blade pierces the ball the following blades of grass each pierce the preceding blade. Until he has made a chain of grass, at which point with the Pandavas chins hitting the ground in amazement he pulls the ball out. Then he throws his ring down the well and shoots an arrow after it which catches the ring and bounces it back off the water up to Drona’s hand. With the showing of such skill they ask him to be their teacher. He agrees under one condition. ‘You must capture Drupada alive’. So when the kauravas and Pandavas were ready enough in their fighting skills they attacked Draupada’s city. The Kauravas rush head long and were defeated but Pandavas held back and timed their attack and so captured Draupada and brought him to Drona. Drona said ‘if you want your freedom then you will agree to give me half your kingdom, then we will be equal’. Of course Draupada agreed but really he is seething underneath. Holding on to his anger, resentment and failure was not going to help him, much he had to learn.
Talking of learning, Arjuna was a fantastic student. Always following Drona’s advice. He became even better than Drona’s own son Ashvatthama, who of course might have felt some anger/jealousy. But Drona tried to keep some secrets away from Arjuna, wanting to keep the power and knowledge to himself. He instructed the palace servants never to let the candles and fires go out. But one night a strong wind did just that and the palace was plunged into darkness. Meanwhile Arjuna realised that if he could eat and drink in darkness surely he could find his target with a bow and arrow in darkness. And so he practiced in darkness, over came sleep, could shoot with either hand (remember that bit) and became possibly the worlds greatest archer, or did he…
Saturday, this is how regular people feel all the time, yug. I do get asked a fair amount what I do on Saturdays that and what time do I go to bed. So to clear up all that. Yes normally I get up at 1am. Though now it’s 4am, which is what I do on Sundays and when I’m on holiday. One of the first things I do is scrape my tongue. I drink water and occasionally green tea. On Saturdays and Moon days I do Paschimattanasana, some breathing and a little chanting. I love my Saturday practice, it’s simplicity works for me. I always do Nauli every morning. When I go to bed I sit and breath for 5 minutes before I drop off.
Who knows the future? As much as we’d like to and spend much time wondering and talking about how things might be, no one knows. Years ago when I was India I had my astrological chart done I remember asking the astrologer if I’d get married. He said yes and she’d do lots on a computer, which 25 years ago seemed strange, what could you do on a computer? 16 year ago I was in Meteora in Greece. It’s a bunch of monasteries on vertiginous 500m rock pillars. An old blind monk asked me if I had children, ‘no’ I replied. He gave me a blessing and then a year latter Talia was born.
Of course this could all be bull shit and I have got everything wrong, that’s ok too.
Ok the Mahabharata has a lot of people in it and to be honest you are getting a highly edited version. It’s rare that I meet someone who has read the Mahabharata and that we can chat and chat about it. But a list of the names we have met so far will help, and a little about them. I’ve been asked for a family tree (not mine, that’s boring). I think you have google for that. But it is complicated as some people have a father and a biological father who just happens to be a God. So I will start with the main characters.
Vyasa: Author of the Mahabharata and the son of Satyavati and the father of blind Dhritarashtra, Pandu, who dies trying to have sex and Vidura, wise but powerless.
Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva: The five Pandavas, sons of Pandu. The first three are archetypes.
Kunti and Madri: Pandu’s wives and the mothers of the five Pandavas. But Kunti had a secret love child. And Madri dies with Pandu.
Karna: Love child of Kunti and Surya (sun God). Born with magical armour and earrings.
Bhishma: Looked at as the Grandfather, his mother was Ganga. He remained celibate. Seen as very wise. But everyone has their faults.
Drona and Kripa: Teachers of the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Drona was a poor brahmin who became a warrior.
Duryodhana and his 99 brothers. These are the sons of Dhritarashtra and his wife Gandhari. Though they do many evil things, no one is all bad.
There are many minor characters who make the Mahabharata fun, and we have more characters to meet. But one major character we have yet meet and he brings us a lot of fun. None other than the dark lord Krishna…
Wasn’t it lovely the big clap for the NHS yesterday. We live opposite an estate and it was great to see so man people at windows, people we never normally see. It’s amazing how many people live on our street, probably hundreds. And where my Dad lives, a hundred mile glen in North Scotland there are less than 100.
Practice on friday always seems a bit of a push. Sometimes it can be Monday, Tuesday too. Always when I find that I feel it’s going to be a hard practice I pick one asana and put more effort in to it. May be its trikonasana, may be the breathing at the end. Just a simple thing can make a big difference.
We left the Mahabharata with the birth of the five Pandavas. Sons of Pandu, well sort of. This thing where one parent is human the other Devine happens in lots of myths and stories and they often are the protectors of the world. What about Pandu’s elder and blind brother Dhritarashtra and his wife Gandhari? They had 100 sons and one daughter. But the pregnancy went on for two years! And when Gandhari gave birth she gave birth to a ball of iron. Vyasa steps in again and splits the ball of iron into 101 parts and puts them into pots with magical ghee. So far we have covered people born half man half woman, of no gender, people born through niyoga, where someone else fathers a child and now we have pot born babies!
So Kunti is now looking after the Pandava boys as a single mother. But now that Pandu is dead Dhritarashtra is sitting on the throne and there is a problem as to who should be the crown prince, the next in line. Yudhishthira is the oldest son of Pandu so should be the crown prince, but Duryodhana is the eldest son of Dhritarashtra who now sits on the throne. But Yudhishthira was born first. So there is from now on some antagonism between the two sets of cousins the five Pandavas and the 100 Kauravas. Who has the right. Sometimes we like to see things in black and white and see the Pandavas as good and the Kauravas as bad, but both sets of cousins covers all ranges of good and bad. Where we prefer a yes or no answer, Indian thought is often both yes and no.
So how were they all brought up in the palace of Hastinapura. Bhishma had appointed Kripa and Drona as their teachers. The story of Drona is worth telling. Drona was a priest and was extremely poor and his son Ashvatthama had never tasted milk. Drona went to his childhood friend Draupada to ask for help and a share of his cows. Draupada was now a king and said ‘we used to be equal but now we are not, so I will give you charity but not share what is mine’. Drona felt hurt and swore that he would have his revenge. And we all know where revenge leads. Drona learnt all his skills of warfare from Parushurama (another Avatar of Vishnu). But Parushurama asked Drona never to teach these skills. But that promise was broken and had a rather unfortunate consequence. Don’t make promises you can’t hold and value the knowledge you have been given. I realise I have introduced a lot of people with long and sometimes difficult names. So tomorrow I will give you a list of names as a reminder.
27th March 2020
Sorry it took us so long to figure a tech work around for the bellow video. Even Anna was a bit flummoxed. So yea I went and created a YouTube account….
I’ll do some more writing later and continue with our Mahabahrata story.
Just a little something Talia has been working on, she is our sweet and sour noodle.
Has anyone been to the shops recently, what a pleasant experience. Take your time, no dodging elbows or being shoved from behind. Worth the queue.
Tomorrow I have a treat for you care of S. Big thanks for sneaking into the shala. I’ll post it early morning for you all.😉
I know this is strange times for everyone. Some without work, some with too much, most of us stuck at home with family or alone (both have their challenges). This will pass and you know you just got to hold on. You have that in you, all those difficult asana when your mind is saying stop, don’t do it and you push your self. When the going gets tough ashtangis kick ass.
Getting back to my favourite story. So how was Pandu to have children, cursed to die if he had sex. And what is Kunti’s secret. Well when Kunti was a child a sage visited her village and she brought him food. The sage was Durvasa, and unusual for him he was kind to her in return, normally he was known for being irascible. He gave her a magical mantra that when ever she chanted it who ever she desired would come and make love with her. Useful if you’re in lock down on your own. Anyway when she got to eighteen she wondered if the mantra worked so road tested it on the God Surya. And pop just like that there he was standing beside her all gorgeous and glowing. Don’t need to go into the details but the blushing Kunti was left pregnant. Being unmarried in those days this was a slight problem. So when the baby was born he was put in a reed basket and floated down a river. Mmm, didn’t someone else suffer the same fate from some other holy book? And a reed basket? How does that float? Anyway the thing to remember is the baby. He is called Karna (ears) because he is born with beautiful earrings and shinning armour that protect him. Fortunately the reed basket caries Karna down stream and it is picked up by a childless couple called Radha and Nandana. They are from the chariot driver/poet profession. Yes it was a duel job, a rapping Uber driver. We will hear a lot about Karna later. If you look at the picture on the very first post of this blog you will see two warriors on chariots. Arjuna on the left and Karna on the right.
So that is Kunti’s secret that she has a child. Obviously she doesn’t confess to Pandu she just tells him she has a secret mantra that will help her get pregnant. So three times she uses it with three different Gods, Yama, Vayu and Indra. God of death/dharma, wind/prana and heaven/thunder. She gives birth to three boys Yudhishthira, Bhima and Arjuna. Kunti shares her secret mantra with Madri, Pandu’s second wife but allows her to only use it once. Madri always ready to find an advantage, asks for the celestial twin horse Gods and there by gets two children Nakula and Sahadeva. So all though Pandu has five sons Nakula and Sahadeva seem to be supporting roles. They live happy lives until Pandu forgets his curse and starts making out with Madri, and before he can put a smile on Madri’s face he pops his clogs (English idiom for dies). Where does this leave our five boys commonly called the Pandavas…
Thought you’d like a little bit of shala. I know we all miss the place. Especial all the teachers and assistants. A massive thanks to those of you who’ve been able to keep paying. We will keep paying our staff. We’re looking at different ways of payment when we re-open, watch this space.
I was walking our dog Scout through Queens wood today. I’ve been going there for many years, it’s near by, sometimes walking sometimes running. It very peaceful and the green light always brings me such calm. If you can’t get out, grow some seeds, basil, cress or chives are easiest. If you’re not working use the time constructively and slow down. I really hope non of you have come down badly with the virus. We have family and friends who have.
Returning to our story Ambika and Ambilika are preparing to sleep with Vyasa. When Vyasa enters Ambika’s room she closed her eyes and when Vyasa entered Ambilika’s room she went pale. Because of this Ambika’s child was born blind, he was called Dhritarashtra and Ambilika’s child was pale and called Pandu. Satyavati asked Ambilika to sleep with Vyasa one more time, but Ambilika forced a servant girl to take her place. Her child was Vidura. Bhishma brought the three boys up until they reached adulthood. Because Dhritarashtra was blind even though he was the oldest he couldn’t become king. We can take the blindness as not just in the eyes. So Pandu was crowned King. Vidura does feature in the Mahabharata and he repeatedly comes across as wise and kind, and yet simply because he is off mixed caste birth he has no power. Sometimes life seems very unfair. So Vidura blessed his mother so she would not be a servant anymore. Often in Indian stories things happen because of previous births. Vidura’s birth and lack of power is because in his previous birth he was Yama, God of death. The story goes that Yama was cursed by a sage for taking his life early, Yama said ‘but you killed an insect when you were a child’. The sage said ‘we shouldn’t be held accountable for wrongs committed as a child’ and cursed Yama to be reborn as someone highly suitable to be a king but unable to be one. I guess sages in them days had a lot of power. Anyway keep Vidura in mind as he was a good man.
When Dhritarashtra and Pandu grew up they were married to Gandhari and Pritha respectively. Gandhari was the princess of Gandhara, which was situated in the swat valley, famed for its Greco-Buddhist art and more recently it’s destruction. When she wed Dhritarashtra she blindfolded her self so she would be like her husband. Pritha was born in Mathura, a state where they didn’t have a king but a democracy (of sorts). Pritha’s father though was poor and so his brother brought her up but called her Kunti (yep another unfortunate name). Pandu fortunately or unfortunately had two wives, his second wife was Madri, and it was Madri he loved most. Our story unfolds back into the forest where Pandu is out hunting and he accidentally kills a sage. We all know what happens when you mess with a sage. On the sages dying breath he curses Pandu to die as soon as he has sex. So how was Pandu to have children? Well, hopefully you’ve learn now about niyoga. Only this time the choice of suitable men is really a lot better! And it all revolves around a secret Kunti has kept…
Today is Talia’s birthday and all the neighbours sang happy birthday to her. I have been worried about how the future will turn out but I do have hope that good things will come out of all this. I have been asked a few times to do a zoom class and to be honest it’s not my thing though hopefully I will get conference back up and running and try to find something other than corona virus to talk about. I’d like to say a big thanks to all the many yoga teachers out there who are offering free yoga classes/practice together at this time of need. Tom and Lauren and Corrie have something sorted out please email them for a link. Louise has just got Sat and Sun led classes sorted, this has been quite a big step for her, see the link on our website. Massive thanks to Lousie.
Being in contact with each other is amazing I think everyone is finding hope in the community. So dig out those old contacts check in on someone. And if you need to chat with me please feel free to phone, email, text, WhatsApp.
We left the Mahabharata wondering how messed up peoples relationships can become and wondering if Satyavati’s bloodline would continue. Well we come to an old tradition called niyoga. Fortunately we don’t practice this anymore as medical science has helped us, you’ll see. I’ll continue with the story and and you can find out more about the history of India. Our story continues with the King of Kashi, which is modern-day Varanasi. He had three daughters Amba, Ambika and Ambilika and they held a swayamvara where the princesses could choose their husbands, usually through some contests. Bhisma rode into the swayamvara and abducted the three princesses to take back to Hastinapura to marry Vichitravirya. But Amba said she was already in love with Shalva another king. Bhishma took her to Shalva but when Amba got there Shalva rejected her. Now Amba had no one to turn to and was furious with Bhishma for ruining her life. Amba ran to the forest and spent years doing tapas (austerities) and prayed to Shiva who eventually granted her wish that she would be able to kill Bhishma, but in her next life. With this she threw herself into a fire. At the same time King Drupada was praying to Shiva asking for a child. And sure enough Amba was reborn as Shikandini. Draupada really wanted a boy and disguised Shikandini as a boy. This didn’t play out too well when it was time for marriage and Shikandini ended up running to the forrest. There is a lot of running and going to the forest and we can look at this as going to a spiritual retreat and sometimes back to a raw nature part of ourselves. The forest holds many secrets. Anyway Shikandini meets a forest God who changes her gender and Shikandini becomes Shikandi. He becomes important in our story but for now we leave him hanging out in the forest.
What about Amba’s sisters Ambika and Ambilika? They were married to Vichitravirya but they were not really his cup of tea, so no babies. What was to happen to Satyavati’s desire to see her grandchildren ascend the throne? Well, remember when she was slightly smelly and had made out on the river and bore a child called Vyasa. Well she prayed to him and sure enough he answers her call. (It does seem like prayers were a form of instant messaging, how useful). Satyavati instructs her son Vyasa to impregnate Vichitravirya’s wives. This is niyoga, where a man is unable to have children he can ask another man to stand in, to have sex with the husband’s wife. This man must be revered and the sex is only for having a child, and can only be done three times. The child belongs to the husband and wife only, the paternal father has no rights. So now you can see how wonderful medical science has become. Phew
So Vyasa who remember has been living in the forest is not exactly looking or smelling his best is slightly hesitant but his mum is insistent. And Ambika and Ambilika are not exactly smiling at the prospect either…