From poison into potion: Why forty days of yoga is alchemy of the soul

RYT-200 Hour Certified Yoga Teacher. Erica started practicing yoga daily to bring herself flexibility, strength and balance. She enjoys doing yoga on the mat in the room, in nature and at the sea side. Erica brings yoga from the mat to everyday life and it helps her to be balanced, non judgmental and to learn new things. She likes learning and challenges, and encourages students to challenge themselves, learn new asanas, practice and enjoy every minute of yoga.
Snakes = Transformation

Snakes = Transformation

by columnist Melissa BillingtonEar2Earth

We come into the new year with a desire to re-create ourselves, to arise out of last year and make a new start.

While I personally consider Spring the new year and the place for emergence since 1582, with the advent of the Gregorian calendar, we observe the start of the new year as January 1.

The Celtic calendar sets November 1(May 1 in the southern hemisphere) as the new year. They see going into the dark as the necessary first step to creation, like the child in the dark womb, the seed in the dark earth, the dark just before dawn.

This year we also shift into a new era with the ending of the Mayan long calendar on December 21 2012.

Additionally, February 10 is our shift from last year’s Water Dragon year to this year’s Black Water Snake year in the Chinese calendar.

Whenever it is that we set our sights to start transformation, we need willpower to make the start and we need commitment to continue from that start.

Manipura – the lustrous gem set in the navel centre of the human body – is our first masculine step in the ascension of the chakras.

We rise out of the receptive and feminine earth and water realms of the first and second chakras, to take action in the world.

As a word, willpower shows us this transition:

  • Will comes from wish, pleasure, desire (Latin voluptas), qualities we discover in Svadisthana, the 2nd chakra meaning ‘ones’ own sweetness or abode.
  • Power comes from crutch, support or potent, and means to be able to. Willpower then is to be able to do or act on one’s own desire or pleasure.

Moving from the support and security of the first chakra, Muladhara (base/root support), into feeling and going with the flow in the second chakra, we now stand on our own two feet, and make manifest that which we desire by firing up the navel centre, Manipura.

Starting at the Navel Centre

Some say the path to wisdom begins at the navel. This is where we plugged into the source of nourishment, the mother, while being created in the womb. Once that cord was severed, we learned to breathe on our own. Eventually we also learn to feed ourselves by plugging into the right sources of energy.

Kundalini Yoga recommends doing Stretch Pose (an intense abdominal exercise) before even getting out of bed in the morning, as a way of plugging your navel centre into the universal energy bank, or Source. That may sound tough if you’re not accustomed to it, but if our plan is a larger scale Waking Up, then plugging into Source is a worthy sacrifice of comfort for awake-ness.

The word sacrifice comes from to make – faciō – holy or sacred – sacer – and is related to the words sacred and sacrum.

In the Vedas and Hindu mythology, Agni is the god of fire, sun and lightning; the acceptor of sacrifices and the messenger between humanity and the gods. In Ayurveda, agni is the digestive fire, residing in the belly.

A sacrifice is then something we do for the sake of the greater aim to which we have made a personal commitment; it’s a message sent from our present truth to our higher Truth.

In order to make the connection to that which we deem holy – in order to be whole and healthy in ourselves and with the world – we must “burn” through the waste of our lives and release ourselves from the weight of that which is no longer nutritive (literally, in the body, get rid of the shit!).

Stimulating the naval centre, from which our limbs radiate like the rays of light and heat from the sun, not only gives us strength at our core, it literally sparks the digestive fires in the belly so we can draw energy and power from the raw materials we consume, and pass on the dross.

  • When this belly fire is over-activated, or rajasic, we may experience acid reflux or ulcers.
  • When under-stimulated, or tamasic, we may be sluggish and develop such conditions as candidaisis or chronic fatigue.

Emotionally, fire energy that is not given an outlet turns inwards, like an ulcer chewing away at the delicate innards, and can be seen in anger, even rage, or shame. The shadow, or inadequately expressed potential of an energy centre, shadows us until we turn and face it, and then direct that energy to a healing/whole purpose.

Anger is strong energy and strong medicine – when balanced with the compassion of the heart and the right relationship of the hips.

Svadhyaya, or self-study, helps us here to look inwards; vision or sight is the sense associated with Manipura. We use clear-seeing to clarify what fires are burning us down, and re-set those fires so they help to burn up our self-destructive tendencies. This process of em-powa-ment requires commitment and discipline.

And I use powa here deliberately as a Native American Powhatan word meaning energy, power and connection that is all-encompassing. Powa relates to healing and the intensive growth of humans, other animals and the planet as a whole.

Powa-full words

It seems to me that a number of the words connected with this energy centre have gained a bad reputation in our modern exploitative society — power, control, commitment and discipline.

How many of us have experienced power over, control over, or commitment or discipline that have enslaved instead of empowered?

That last one – discipline – is one of the first words with which I developed a new relationship. I love etymology, the root source of words, and I find looking back at where the word came from helps me to reclaim and transform its meaning (snake medicine in action).

For example, inherent in discipline is disciple. Both of these words, her-story-call-y, had me cringing, but for different reasons.

Discipline irked me because my step-father insisted I develop it, and I rebelled against the idea of something I should have, remembering what my mom would often say,

“Quit should-in on yourself!”

And then disciple made me nervous because it also meant a subservience, a should, that someone else ordained. When my mom read me something about it meaning ‘to be a disciple to your higher Self,’ I was able to shift my perspective.

It became clear to me that committing to a practice and controlling or guiding my desires in order to develop discipline for the evolution of my higher self and the power/powa inherent there, was a worthy and valuable endeavour.

Instead of discipline or disciple-ship being imposed from the outside-in, it was emerging from the inside-out.

And it was ultimately only via this disciple-ship to my higher purpose/self that I was able to tap into and develop my powa.

I learned about commitment from a Capricorn partner. (Capricorn is ruled by Saturn, the god of time, commitment and responsibility).

This Capricorn was so committed to each goal he took on that you could see it in his feet which literally pointed inwards, making an arrowhead of aim towards the target he’d chosen.

When he was tired and at the end of a hike or a day or a project, he put his head down and went faster to get done sooner. He taught me how to see farther than tomorrow. Before him I couldn’t imagine ten years from now.

Sight, such as this, is the sense associated with the third chakra.

With focus in Manipura, we learn where and how we direct our sights habitually, and how to create and hold in sight both the chosen target and the present circumstances we’re working from to get us there.

For example, we have an idea, a vision, of how Triangle pose can look and yet we start in the pose with what is true for us right now. Day by day we build more strength, flexibility, familiarity and also the willingness to stay, to hold, with what is while inching towards the target image of a fuller expression of Triangle.

In this way we actualize the root meaning of the word commitment – from Latin committere, to unite, connect, combine; to bring together (from com- “together”  + mittere “to put, send“).

We are literally bringing together the past – where we’ve come from and what’s created our bodies as they are now – and the future, where we imagine ourselves to be, by embracing the present with all the fire in the belly we can muster.

As well as commitment and discipline, we use self-control to hone our powa, another word that perked my hackles up.

“Control yourself!”

I could hear some vague, adopted authority figure admonish me. But we can reclaim this word too. It seems that while control does currently mean to exert authority, check, verify, regulate, it derives from Old French conteroller – to regulate, from contrerolle duplicate register, system of checking.

So control is an accounting term that means we have a system in place to check that what is said and with what is true. I don’t have a problem with that; in fact it sounds wise. How do I check I’m still on track with mySelf? By reconnecting in the present circumstances with my intention or commitment, that was made in the past, and then having the discipline to not give up when the “going gets tough.”

Poison into Potion—Why forty days of yoga is alchemy of the soul

The dogged energy that we need to stay the course is tapas (Sanskrit for heat, glow, austerity), the heat or fire to burn through our resistances, our blocks. It’s this energy that the sprout uses to break through the surface of the earth and emerge into the wide unknown world.

We do the same when we stay in a pose so long and so true that we can literally feel the muscle burning. It’s exactly at that moment of wanting to pull out and give up that we can learn so much about ourselves if we release the tension, stay longer, breathe deeper and maybe even inch into the posture a little farther.

In this way, we can experience how commitment is not a one-time statement or intention; rather it is a consistent reiteration of the original intention, particularly through the doubt, denial and intense sensations that arise.

Stepping into the Chinese New Year of Snake, we are invited to shed skins, to release what no longer serves.

Or, as Anais Nin wrote,

“Anything I cannot transform into something marvellous, I let go.”

Which leads us into the First Nation way of understanding snake’s medicine of transmutation, or turning poison into potion. This one body we have in this life — this vehicle or home — is the container or crucible for the alchemical work of transforming raw material to energy and power, for transmuting lead to gold.

It’s vital that we strengthen this container, our body. If our systems are weakened, the long lines of our bodies are kinked, and our potential is dampened by insufficient support or connection to Source, we suffer. In order to strengthen, we face ourSelves honestly each day for forty days.

Why forty days?

Apparently the liver regenerates in forty days and not only is the liver part of the navel centre it’s also etymologically clear how important it is to our life – live-r.

It reflects to us how much we pollute ourselves or how well we live and support our systems in their inherent functions of supporting us. In the Bible, forty days were spent in fasting, praying, clearing and connecting to Spirit. Rumi writes:

“A new moon teaches gradualness and deliberation, and how one gives birth to oneself slowly. Patience with small details makes perfect a large work, like the universe. What nine months of attention does for an embryo, forty early mornings alone will do for your gradually growing wholeness.”

In Kundalini Yoga they say forty days carries us through one and a half moon cycles and through the changing moon phases we can see our own patterns unfold.

My experience of doing forty day practices and of holding the forty day sadhanas in the MYOGA Seasonal Structure for the past three years is that we start out gung-ho, charging forward for the first fifteen or twenty days and then at about day twenty or so the demons emerge — fatigue, hopelessness, illness, boredom, resistance, anger, grief — and we falter or even drop out of our commitment to practice.

This is the magic moment of transmutation. Whatever arises is the lead to be turned to gold.

If we back out, it remains lead. If we find some way to continue — it may even mean softening the intensity in order to serve the greater commitment to show up on the mat — we stay in the container with the reactive elements and watch as the pyrotechnics of our souls light up and burn through the demons, transmuting them to daemons, to dynamos.

And the true meaning of Manipura emerges as the dust settles — the lustrous gem of our Being is uncovered, polished and given place and right to shine like the sun.

So go on – I double-dog dare you! – uncover the brilliance and sturdiness that you’re truly made of! Make a Forty Day Yoga commitment.

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