by Robin Wilner
With my curly dark brown hair askew in the mornings, my big brother once proclaimed, “You look like Medusa!” As avid lovers of Greek mythology and the ‘80s film Clash of the Titans, I knew he wasn’t stroking my ego. Medusa was a cruel and ugly monster, with greenish skin, bloodshot eyes and a ferocious stare that turned all who looked upon her into stone. She also had a den of venomous snakes in place of hair. Thanks, big Bro.
But what most may not know is the story of who she was prior to this curse. The only mortal of three sisters, Medusa was once a beautiful, fair-skinned priestess to the Goddess Athena, with wavy golden locks and kind, loving eyes. She’d taken a vow of lifetime celibacy, but like many young adults, soon found herself infatuated with a lover (Poseidon), and chose to marry him rather than honor her promise. As punishment, Athena transformed Medusa into a repulsive creature, which caused the world to detest and reject her until she was forced to flee from her home to live out her cursed existence in solitude. She was eventually hunted and beheaded by the great warrior, Perseus.
Sure, my brother was making fun in the way that ignorant youngsters often do. My messy, seemingly unattractive hair reminded him of the evil snake monsteress. This myth has an interesting twist, however, when looked upon through a more mature lens. We often forget that a promise is not to be broken, and that there are consequences for being dishonorable. There are also times when we exhibit ugliness (in the non-physical sense) and feel no repercussions; and yet, society tends to perceive physical beauty as acceptable and unattractiveness as dangerous or threatening – symbolic by how Medusa was first shunned by the world and her cursed gaze would turn onlookers to stone if they looked straight into her eyes. We often don’t want others to see us angry, frustrated, sad or hurt; we’d rather they turn away or only engage with the façade of happiness and contentment that we create instead. And Medusa’s struggle was to maintain her authentic sense of identity despite her outward appearance, which she eventually succumbed to in the ultimate form of suffering.
Myths are often stories that reveal our humanity, that help us to see our habitually destructive patterns. We’re encouraged to generate more tapas – the fire we burn throughout the Yoga practice that helps to free us from these damaging behaviors. Each sacred tale bathed in tradition goes even a step further, helping to make sense of the human experience by answering timeless questions that may eventually lead us towards a richer life: Who am I? What is my purpose? How do I want to be in the world? When connected through the common human experience, regardless of ethical or cultural differences, we can even appreciate the humanity in all beings.
While I may not have realized this initially as a youngster, Medusa was as multi-layered as any other mortal. She made poor decisions without weighing the consequences, attached her sense of Self to outward appearance and the external world, and was doomed to suffer for the rest of her shortened life. Truthfully, we all start out just like Medusa, but then the practice of Yoga takes effect in such profound ways. With time, we come to realize that a pure state of Joy is only attainable when we look deeply within ourselves. The internal world must be in harmony in order to find true peace, and no amount of external pleasure or acceptance will satisfy our desire for internal tranquility. It’s completely up to us to seek the truth of our Divine nature in order to lessen the suffering.
Formerly a Broadway dancer/singer/actress in NYC, Robin mixes her love of movement, chanting, energetic healing and yoga philosophy into all her teachings. She believes that human potential is infinite and that the path to joy starts with mindfulness and self-transformation. Known for her inspiring sequences, sense of humor, and juicy hands-on assists, Robin aims to guide students through a rich and heartfelt experience that maximizes their potential. She is also a Holistic Nutritionist. www.nutritiousyogini.com
Classes: Mondays 9am & 12pm, Wednesdays 9am, Fridays 12pm & 5:30pm or Sundays at 10am.
The story of creation(s) in Hindu Mythology starts as so many other stories of creation do, and because these stories have mostly been carried through word of mouth, there are many interpretations. This story, in particular, starts in the complete dark and mysterious nothingness. No space, no earth, no heaven, no hell, no place in between only darkness….darkness beyond darkness.
by Erica Martin
“We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”
– Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
I remember the moment when I found the yoga in Harry Potter. As an adult, I decided to reread the series of books that I had read on loop as a child. I thumbed through the familiar, dog-eared and chocolate stained pages, and a great sense of remembering washed over me – a remembering much deeper than the narrative itself.
Ultimately, Harry’s story is the story of all of us, realizing on one hand our latent magical abilities, and on the other the darkness that resides within. In the end, Harry is called upon to recognize this duality and release his attachment to this great struggle in order to move past it. If that’s not yoga, I don’t know what is! In this practice we are constantly dancing between opposites; lightness and darkness, sukha and dukkha, adho mukha and urdhva mukha. Our great teachings hold that we observe these binaries, yet find a seat in between them, neither running away from one nor towards the other. We bow to the light within each of us, but also recognize the darkness, and our ability to chose between the two.
This is not a theme exclusive to Harry Potter and the yogic tradition, but one we see playing out over and over again through mythological stories across cultures and religious traditions. From the great Hindu tradition the beautiful goddess, Lakshmi, when examined closely, turns into the great and fearsome destroyer, Kali. In turn, one who is willing to embrace Kali’s darkness, and look at her in the face lovingly, will have her transform into Lakshmi. In essence, they are two sides of the same coin, and the devotee who recognizes them both receives their full delight and love. (It is important to note that the intersection of myth and religion is a complicated one! All religious traditions have mythological stories that are sacred and communicate profound truths. I share this example here in acknowledgement of the divinity of both Kali and Lakshmi and their importance in a religion and culture that is not my own).
This is the great power of myth – to take a truly universal human experience and try to make sense of it through fantastical yet utterly human stories. The great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, notes that one of the most important functions of mythology is, “to foster the centering and unfolding of the individual in integrity in accord with himself (the microcosm), his culture (the mesocosm), the universe (the macrocosm), and that awesome ultimate mystery which is both beyond and within himself and all things.”
This is the stuff of great storytelling. From Harry Potter to Voldemort, from Lakshmi to Kali, the great dance between lightness and darkness is happening within us all.
Erica teaches at 7:00 AM on Tuesday mornings and 8:15 PM on Thursday and Friday nights. When she is not at the Lotus she can be found cuddling her puppy or sharing yoga practices with Bay Area educators through her non-profit Breathe For Change.
by Laura S
Growing up, the basement was filled with both mythological and worldly characters, stored side by side on the shelves. Papier mâché Kali rested beside the Statue of Liberty. A “wild woman” with hair of raffia, a giant golden sun, a bear made from thrift store fur coats, Persephone, Ganesh, Zeus, demons, politicians, skeletons, acrobats, and countless other deities, animals, and archetypes all crowded in. There was never enough room for all the masks my mom made. They were donned by her theatre troupe, 1000 Faces, to perform plays over the past twenty years. Whether Halloween, the spring equinox, a presidential election, or high school graduation, I grew up with the idea that gods and goddesses marked the moments of our life with storytelling, ritual, and meaning.
My mom’s masks always scared my friends who slept on the pull-out couch in the basement. One morning a college friend emerged after a restless night’s sleep. “All those faces,” he said to us, a bit sheepish, but kind of freaked out. We teased him, but I understood. There was something about going to sleep in that room. Your eyes adjusted to the dark, and you’d see someone looking back at you. It was the same unsettled feeling as when an unfamiliar part of yourself stirs and wants to make itself known. Every mythological character, in their own way, is a mirror of some part of us.
In “Close to the Bone” Jean Shinoda Bolen uses myth as a tool to help us face serious illness, trauma, or difficulty in our lives. Through stories of the goddesses Inanna, Ereshkigal, and Psyche (among others), we are guided through the a journey into the underworld, or into the darkness of our own lives. Bolen says, “Myths and symbols are the language of the soul.” She asserts that our negative side will destroy the positive side unless we can admit to having both. Myths will help us do this. In a goddess like Ereshkigal, who lives in the underworld, we can see pain and darkness play themselves out, and thereby understand our own pain with more acceptance and clarity. So often in our contemporary Western society, it is difficult to find a place for the experience of raw emotion, fear, or illness. Ereshkigal is, “angry, and she could strike someone dead–characteristics that [many of us] repress and keep hidden.” The darkness is there; we can move into and through it, the myths remind us.
In “Close to the Bone” Bolen examines Psyche’s descent into the underworld with a particular focus that gives us permission to truly care for ourselves. Psyche is armed with cakes and coins in order to pay Cerberus, the hound and Charon, the ferryman. She has two of each because she needs to get both in and out. At various points in her journey, people ask for things from her, and she must say no. She cannot drop the cakes and the coins or she will never escape.
When I first read this, I thought, “Hmmm, how terrible! What is the moral of this story? That you shouldn’t help other people?” Yet, as I read on, Bolan describes the strength, wisdom, and clarity we need when facing a serious challenge in our life. She writes: “What do you want? What could help heal you? Can you ask for it? Insist upon it? Can you say no to what or who depletes you and bring what you need into your life? Might your actual life, and certainly the quality of it, depend upon choosing to do what nourishes your soul with your time and energy?”
As I read those questions, the image of Psyche with the coins and cake clicked for me into a much different analysis than I’d initially made. It wasn’t an image of selfishness at all, but an image of profound self-awareness, bravery, and resilience. In the context of illness, which Bolen was describing, you must more seriously choose what nourishes you. During a recent illness, I held on to this image of Psyche as a powerful reminder that not only was I allowed to focus on healing, but my well-being depended upon it. I’m fairly certain I was only able to consider this idea anew because I pictured Psyche doing it first, and not myself.
Joy Williams, one of my favorite fiction writers, recently published “99 Stories of God,” a collection of stories that explore our relationship to the sacred, and how it is often hidden from us in contemporary life. With a seriously dark sense of humor, Williams tells a series of 99 very short tales. In some, the sacred makes an overt appearance. In others, people look for, but ultimately miss, the presence of the sacred. In the rest, it seems there is no appearance of the sacred at all (yet I suspect there is). In story 49 Williams writes, “We can never speak about God rationally as we speak about ordinary things, but that does not mean we should stop thinking about God. We must push our minds to the limits of what we could know, descending ever deeper into the darkness of unknowing.” It is all of our myths and stories that allow us to do just that.