I needed a home within my home,
A place to return to
With many needs weighing me down—
Some of them my own—
I built a home by bowing to the sun
Last spring, I was searching for a way to bring clarity into my new life as housemate and default caregiver to my partner’s elderly mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. My new family’s road seemed paved with rocks; it was unfamiliar and hard to navigate. I suddenly had many roles to fill, and too many people to take care of—loved ones, as well as students in numerous locations—and I had gotten lost in the shuffle.
Staying centered during difficult or busy times can be challenging, even for yoga teachers. And it’s particularly the case when it comes to staying connected to your own practice in a way that keeps your teaching true and embodied. The upside of times like these is that teaching can actually become an oasis, a place to explore the practices more deeply, and a means of exposing more of yourself to your students. For me, it was a matter of truly accepting my vulnerability and giving it a shape.
Becoming a caregiver and dealing with its complexities forced me to look at my practice with new eyes, and to take inventory. The essential questions that demanded review included this: How did I first arrive at yoga, and how could I get back to that pure place? I had begun my practice at another difficult juncture of my life, and it was the devotional movements of surya namaskar (sun salutation) that swept me off my feet. The flowing movement, the rising energy, the rinsing of body and mind... I found that I could be strong and free, maybe even fearless, with the help of a 68-inch-long piece of rose-colored rubber.
Many teachers—although, of course, not all—agree that asana practice without sun worship is like dressing without vinegar. Without its harnessing of mental and physical energy, asana practice loses its connection to something more primal and devotional. Regardless of our personal beliefs about surya namaskar and its origins, the knowledge that it is a shared sequence of movements spanning generations, possibly centuries and worlds, is powerful. We rise and we fall, we lift up and move back, and we jump forward to our starting position, only to rise again. The cycle invites us to think about life and faith, and about our own lives—where the kinks are today and what we’re doing with them.
But what happens when our prayers to the sun become rote and somewhat disconnected? What happens when the practice loses its luster?
I needed to start over somehow. Take a step back to the land of vairagya, or “detachment.” I needed to gain some perspective on my practice in order to bring light back into it. Practically speaking, I also needed to create a shorter, more focused practice that would work with my zigzag schedule.
Most of all, I wanted to touch the earth gently, in the morning, at home.
As one who has always enjoyed words and derived solace from them, I turned to mantra for the first time in earnest. I knew that mantra was, among many other things, a way to focus the mind. Georg Feuerstein used the phrase positive mental tracks when discussing the power of mantra to “help us gradually overcome spiritual darkness.” Let’s linger on the words “positive mental tracks” for a while.
Practicing mantra creates a passageway in the mind. I tend to think of neurons lighting up in a pretty, holiday-lights kind of way. But in reality, the sounds of a mantra create a kind of portal, a way out of something and toward something else—essentially an altered consciousness. It diffuses and defuses my thoughts. My first off-the-mat “aha” moment was on the R train, on my way to teach transit workers in Brooklyn. I was stuck in my head, in the past, and the mantra I was practicing at the time rose up, seemingly from nowhere, and it stayed there until I got off the train. Yes, at that moment, I was somewhere else (!), but I was also free from the former prison of my mental entanglement.
The sounds of a mantra create a kind of portal, a way out of something and toward something else—essentially an altered consciousness. It diffuses and defuses my thoughts.
So my mantra journey began by pairing mantra with movements that were accessible to me—the classic sun salutation (sometimes called Sun Salutation C). The classic sun salutation Surya mantra felt like the right fit, given my limited knowledge of Sanskrit. To better engage with the words, I talked to different teachers about their various meanings.
Here is the mantra, along with the English names of the sun that suited my ear. (The English translations for the names of the sun were gifted to me by Jenny Meyer, her teachers, and Prem Sadasivananda.)
Om Mitraya (friendly one) Namaha
Om Ravaye (shining one) Namaha
Om Suryaya (dispeller of darkness) Namaha
Om Bhanave (one who illumines) Namaha
Om Khagaya (mover in the sky) Namaha
Om Pusne (nourisher) Namaha
Om Hiranyagarbhaya (one of golden color, the container of everything) Namaha
Om Maricaye (possessor of rays) Namaha
Om Adityaya (son of Aditi, the cosmic divine mother) Namaha
Om Savitre (the cause of everything) Namaha
Om Arkaya (healer of afflictions) Namaha
Om Bhaskaraya (giver of wisdom) Namaha
It was a process to sync the mantra with the movements (each name goes with a position of the sun salutation), and to stay focused on the words as I chanted (initially out loud, and later silently). I’d like to say that it was a beautiful process, but it wasn’t. It was a way of digging out. A way to practice in a slower, more deliberate way. I realized that I was quite scattered, which though not necessarily terrible, was not a welcome realization. I also began to realize that that was a result of caring for someone who has a mental illness, which allowed me to be more patient with myself. Mostly, I learned that it’s not easy to slow down, now, in our Instatimes. And it’s not easy to slow down a sequence that I initially learned to practice with speed. But eventually the lento rhythm came. And eventually it sped up again. And now I have choices as to how to practice it.
So now I should talk about God … or sun gods? Or perhaps how it’s all the same. I prefer not to. Suffice it to say that these names of the sun can also be applied to the Big One. Or whomever you choose. But can you chant it without that type of belief, without intense devotion to a supreme being? I believe you can. For many, the notion of a higher power is personal, so why don’t we just stay with that vibration. What if one or two names of the sun resonate with you more than the others? What if one or two evoke qualities you’d like to bring to your daily outlook? Or what if, as Prem Sadasivananda said, every time you look at a tomato you see the sun?
That level of appreciation echoes the leading 20th century theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s concept of “radical amazement.” He says:
Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things. To find an approximate cause of a phenomenon is no answer to his ultimate wonder. He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all. [...]
As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.
I wholeheartedly agree, but would argue that wonder can be the chief characteristic of every person, religious or not. I remain in awe of “my” mantra and what it gave me, that it brought me back to the bigger questions—the ones that need poetic license—the ones that arise.
Poetry of the Sun
As a poet, the Surya mantra led me to seek out poems about the sun. There are many gorgeous, profound poems of reverence, of quest for what exists beneath and beyond human desire and folly. For example, “O Sun of Real Peace” (from Leaves of Grass), by Walt Whitman, who worked in a hospital during the Civil War, is about the process of creation, and it celebrates the war’s end. You can hear the long echo of a yearning many of us feel today. There is a lot here to contemplate, but the imperative is clear: Pale as we are, we must follow the ideal of the sun.
It is yogic ultimately in its return to the present moment:
O SUN of real peace! O hastening light!
O free and ecstatic! O what I here, preparing, warble for!
O the sun of the world will ascend, dazzling, and take his height—
and you too, O my Ideal, will surely ascend!
O so amazing and broad—up there resplendent, darting and burning!
O vision prophetic, stagger'd with weight of light! with pouring glories!
O lips of my soul, already becoming powerless!
O ample and grand Presidentiads! Now the war, the war is over!
New history! new heroes! I project you!
Visions of poets! only you really last! sweep on! sweep on!
O heights too swift and dizzy yet!
O purged and luminous! you threaten me more than I can stand!
(I must not venture--the ground under my feet menaces me--it will not support me:
O future too immense,)—O present, I return, while yet I may, to you.
A more recent poem whose flowing language has a relaxing effect is Mary Oliver’s “The Sun," which asks:
Have you ever seen
in your life
than the way the sun,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon...
And here is a poem for our times. A poem of now: Can we actually give up the things that we think we need? Can we really spend more time in contemplation? I wonder. But poems like these resound with faith and can be read more frequently in the yoga room—the one you teach or practice in.
And finally I arrived at a poem by the famous late 20th-century Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, “The Sun of the First Day”:
The sun of the first day
Put the question
To the new manifestation of life—
Who are you?
There was no answer.
Years passed by.
The last sun of the last day
Uttered the question
on the shore of the western sea
In the hush of evening—
Who are you?
No answer came again.
This is the poem that drew the arc down to the ground again for me. There are different approaches to interpretation, but if I pause for a moment and place the poem at the beginning of a sun salutation, it resonates in a particular way: Your hands are in prayer as you stand in samasthiti (equal standing). Who are you? The question does not need to be answered, because quite possibly it cannot. In the hush of evening, there is no answer again. Perhaps only the sun—the divine Self—can know the answer; we in the day-to-day world can only search via mantra, meditation, and movement.
I’ve now come to think of the term “home practice” differently: employing spiritual vehicles to make my home my practice. In going back to the beginning with the yoga of the sun, I discovered a new home and self, and found sanctuary in both. In the words of the 15th-century mystic poet Kabir: “The moon is within me, and so is the sun.”