My heart is full of so many things right now. Real time connections with dear friends on the ground in suffering India no longer allows me to create an abstraction of the news reports I read daily.
My heart breaks.
Again and again.
Compassion means, literally, suffering with. Which implies connection. On the deepest level, we are connection. So – what to do in the face of so much suffering? Can I allow my heart to break open more and a little bit more with each breath? Can I use that heart broken open to allow love to flow? Can I trust that somehow, somehow love will find its way, will inspire the right gesture at the right time?
My Bharatanatyam teacher, Supratim Talukder of Kolkata, is teaching me the steps in Ananda Natamaduvar Thillai, choreographed by Srimat Vanda Alase Hazra.
To be clear, I am only discovering the beauty of Bharatanatyam belatedly in this lifetime, and realistically, I will likely never take my expression of this particular piece anywhere beyond the walls of my own practice space.
This is enough.
I have watched my teacher’s video recording of this piece so many times. It explores some of the rich mythology and iconography of Lord Śiva. To be able to get inside of these images takes my appreciation of the piece to another level. It is embodied prayer.
I am beginning to grasp the idea that a dancer does not pretend, in the dance, to be a devotee, god, or goddess… The dancer enters a state where he or she experiences this as a dimension of reality. And when one watches this, that experience is like a lightning bolt straight to the heart. The viewer too drinks in the experience. The viewer too becomes...
To have this possibility of experience – both as rasika (viewer or, literally, taster) and as dancer – is a gift beyond what I imagined possible when I embarked on the journey of Bharatanatyam study.
I’ve been practicing and teaching yogāsana for many years, but a few months ago took a Hanuman-sized leap into the world of Bharatanatyam: Indian Classical dance.
I’m 62. To be honest, I’ve had many doubts about my capacity to explore this exquisite dance idiom. At one point I even – and I say this with a degree of shame – wished I had another face, another body. I was forced to confront this – and eventually settle into the truth of who I am and where I’m at in this lifetime. This venture really churned up the oceanic depths of my self, revealing the hālāhala, the poisonous attitude, that I had hidden at my core.
My teacher, who at 26 is the inverse of my current age, has been a providential guide on this journey. Where I saw limitation – he sees creative potential. This has freed me to begin to look at myself in the same way. There is no limit to creative potential. It is the Divinity that inhabits each of us.
On International Dance Day I want to offer a profound thank you to Supratim Talukder, my Bharatanatyam guruji. May he and all dancing spirits continually find new ways to celebrate the ecstasy of embodiment .
Mid to late afternoon, after tea, after reading Tagore. I lie down on the couch and curl up like a comma. Not to sleep, but to go quietly inside and think things through.
Today, I am considering the collision of world-views.
A few blog posts back I considered this distance that separates in the air you breathe: the inevitability of the separation that results from being coiled into our cultural cocoons.
The divide is fractal, existing not only on the macro level of culture, but on the micro level of any two individuals. We are all blind, in varying degrees, to the ground upon which we stand. We look out into the world, thinking that we see objectively. But the really real is veiled by the innumerable beliefs we hold about it.
What to do, then? Just give up and sink into the false conviction that only my world-view is real?
It occurs to me that attempting to bridge the gap is why we’re here. Here, now, in apparent isolation from everything else. Our attempts to find connection may often be clumsy and miss the mark. But we can’t give up the project.
This conundrum reminds me of the title of one of Tagore’s novels: Yogayog. That is, yoga + ayoga. Yoga – connection, and its opposite – ayoga – separation. The former is the ultimate reality that underlies everything. The latter is the relative reality in which we spend most of our time.
May we support each other in the attempt to bridge the gap and find connection. The survival of everything depends upon this.
Our life, like a river, strikes its banks not to find itself closed in by them, but to realize anew every moment that it has its unending opening towards the sea. It is as a poem that strikes its meter at every step not to be silenced by its rigid regulations, but to give expression every moment to the inner freedom of its harmony. – Rabindranath Tagore: The Problem of Self from Sadhana.
Or perhaps life is like the highly codified art form of Bharatanatyam.
One must first learn the rules of this intricate dance idiom in order that the Divine might find expression through it. The latter cannot happen through force or calculation, but only and ever through Grace.
When it does come together, Divinity dances among us and we are utterly transformed.
I experience this in Supratim Talukdar’s expression of Arekar’s choreography Ardhanarīshvara…
Diversity is of many kinds – in a family of ten, there are ten different kinds of diversity. -Rabindranath Tagore*
This observation, penned by Tagore in 1895, expresses a perennial truth. Why then do we insist on separating life into polarities? Are you black or white? Gay or straight? Liberal or conservative? Religious or non-religious?
Daring to look at the astounding abundance of diversity in the natural world, it becomes evident that nothing could be further from the truth. There is only and ever a continuously evolving flow of expression. An infinity of dancing points of light.
Let’s embrace the image of the tāndava dance of Śiva Natarāja encompassing everything and every place and all time. The swirling ecstasy that has no opposite.
Wishing you all an auspicious Mahaśivarātri!
*from Raja O Proja , 1895, translated by Debjani Sengupta
Today, as my online Bharatanatyam class was finishing up, the next student, a little girl from Dubai, Zoomed in. My teacher (Kolkata, India), myself (Ottawa, Canada), and little Adhanu (Dubai, United Arab Emirates) were all on the screen together. I doubt that Adhanu speaks much English, but she certainly understood me waving hello – and responded enthusiastically. My teacher then requested that I perform Namaskaram to end my class, and Adhanu leapt up to perform Namaskaram to start her class.
So she and I danced together, touching the earth with our fingertips and bringing Earth’s blessing up to our eyes, then saluting God, the Guru, and each other.
During my yoga teacher training we talked about holding space. A teacher in front of a class of yoga students needs to find an authentic way to hold space. This is not about having all your sequencing and cues memorized… it’s much deeper and more subtle.
It’s about letting go of planning. It’s about expanding into vulnerability. It’s about allowing the heart to open to those who have gathered for your class. It’s about becoming an empty channel for the divine to flow through you and embrace everyone there.
For me, it’s much easier to write about than to do.
In my online Bharatanatyam class this morning, my teacher touched on this concept from his point of view as a performer on stage. Each dance gesture needs to be expansive, to fill the space and create connection with the rasikas (literally, the tasters, or audience). He mentioned too that, for him, Bharatanatyam is a sadhana. It’s a sacred path to moksha, or liberation. This is not an overlay, but rather at the core of what it is to dance…
…and at the core of what it is to teach or practice yoga, or maybe just to serve tea to a friend.
Samputa, in the exquisite gestural language of Bharatanatyam, is one of the double hand gestures. The right and left hands are cupped together to create a container. A little treasure box.
I find the image apt for many of the traditional Sanskrit names given to the poses in Yogāsana. For example, Vīrabhadrāsanaencodes the whole story of the death of Lord Śiva’s beloved wife Satī. Overcome with grief and rage, Śiva rips out one of His dreadlocks, throws it to the ground, and the fearsome Vīrabhadra arises, ready to avenge Satī’s death.
Investigation into the stories behind the names of the poses can take our practice of yogāsana to another level. Taking Vīrabhadrāsana – literally “Blessed Hero” – again as an example, how might this familiar pose transform if we allow ourselves to embody the dharmic or righteous rage of this avenger? What does it mean to take dharmic action in the world?
The sadhana of yogāsana is a treasure box freely bequeathed to us from the rich culture of India, its birthplace. Do we have the courage to open it up and investigate what lies within?
On this day, the 72nd celebration of the Republic of India, I offer my heartfelt thanks to the land of Bharat for the priceless treasure of yogāsana!
My main sadhana, for many years, has been yogāsana. I practice, like most hatha yoga practitioners, on a yoga mat. About 68 by 24 inches. A container. A sacred space. A safe space.
But today, I rolled it up, and stood in the middle of the floor in my practice space. I was starting class #14 with my Bharatanatyam teacher, Supratim Talukder, via Zoom. Today’s class focused on improvisatory movement prompted by various types of cues: situational, musical, emotional… Once I allowed myself to surrender to the process, it felt incredibly liberating. 75 minutes spun by. And afterwards – I felt like I had let go of a lot of stuff. You know – all the individual and collective angst related to this pandemic and life in general. I just – danced it out! It felt so cleansing – like I had just breathed in a truckload of fresh air. Without a mask.
I followed my class up by getting back on my mat and doing some asana. It felt – quite different. There was more space in my body. Familiar poses felt new.