If there is anything in us that is mythic, that ought to be a good place to redefine who we are. Once upon a time, there were eagles the size of forests and men looked to them for things like strength, courage, bravery of a warrior. Eagles who hunted. Some say the eagle could lift a wing and the wind it made would move the sea like a hurricane, revealing the sea monsters, and the eagles would feed.
Garuda was such an eagle, with the features of a man. He carried Lord Vishnu across the earth. He was majestic, fierce; Garuda is usually translated to eagle but an older translation reads “devourer”, relating the warrior bird to the all consuming fire of the sun’s rays.
In the way of myth, which is more truthful than the way of common sense and opposites, Garuda was also a symbol of compassion, protection, and nuturance. He stands over mountains, tenderly watches over temples, his hand in abhaya – (protection, do not fear) mudra. Garuda was strong, fierce, a hunter. He devoured the serpents of the world without being harmed. He is the conqueror of thirst. There are few symbols in the world for that which overcomes the dangerous…the poisons, the darkness, the hooks we all catch ourselves up on. Garuda is one.
Resolve, steadiness, that raptor’s eye and the fire of the sun transform our poisons into medicine. Protection is compassionate. Eagles, hawks, the raptors, are creatures of vision, observance, wisdom.
Assume the pose and you assume the qualities of the thing. The asana invokes the mythic bird; this is the practice of strength, flexibility, endurance. The difficultly of balance, the listing from side to side, teaches unwavering concentration, steady gaze, an eagle’s sight. That concentration, that steadiness, is an actual calming of the mind. A stimulant and sedative all at once: rush the awareness, steady the mind.
We have our demons and our serpents. The physical posture of garudasana is one of compression, stimulation, and potency. We contort ourselves, pull in, hang on. The twisting actually serves as an opening: our wrapt arms open the wings of the shoulder blades, our bent and twisted legs activate the synovial fluid, opening hips, knees, ankles, stimulating the sex organs and seat of creativity. Concentrate and concentrated.
This is how we transmute thirst into wisdom, how we take our poisons and make them benign. In order to transform a thing, an emotion, a characteristic, a fact of life, we need to concentrate on it, protect ourselves from its danger, find steadiness and build our endurance.
Eagle relieves tension of the shoulders, neck and upper back. It drives strength into the lower limbs and works the core. Eagle coils and recoils, weaving flexibility into each of the 12 major joints in the body – ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, wrists. The kidneys are flushed clear, oxygenated blood floods the reproductive organs. The central nervous system is called up and focused, that brain and spinal cord who integrate the information in our body, co-ordinate our movements. This is about balance, grace, and a steady mind. This is about fierce potency, power, creativity, and the heart of a hunter.
Garudasana is the gargoyle protecting the heart’s temple, the egg that seeds our capacity to fly.
Last week I spoke of Ahimsa, nonviolence and compassion, that first principal of the first limb of the yoga practices. Everything that comes after is informed by that commitment to compassion. The second yama is Truthfulness, or Satya.
Like ahimsa, satya is an easy enough thing to nod at when things are easy. Of course we should tell the truth and have integrity. Of course. But being truthful is no less an experiment and process we explore our whole lives than is compassion and nonviolence. And like ahimsa, it becomes more potent the moment you begin to take it seriously, as a practice.
The truth is much like Garuda, I think. A creature that inspires as much fear as he does contentment. Unless we approach truth with our knees knocking, we haven't really understood the profundity of truth's power.
When we start looking for the truth, and trying to express our truth in our lives, we are faced with the complex of samskara, avidya (ignorance), fear, and all the thousand and three ways we sell ourselves short, stay stuck, settle for now. We come face to face with all the walls and limitations we've built up over time. Granted, we didn't lay all the brick. Granted, life is hard. But truth dispels the notion of victimhood right quick, and presses us to revolution and conversion.
Truth is liberating, earth shaking, ennobling and humbling all at once. It will establish healthy boundaries for us and pull us out of the relationships that are harmful. It will challenge us when we fall back on easy, white little lies about the way we spend time, money, make promises.
Truth will ask very difficult questions about who you are.
And we should be afraid. Afraid is the most appropriate response there is. This eagle is as large as a forest, and will destroy all that is safe and cozy and convenient.
And so I'm drawn to garudasana as a pose to explore the potency, the difficulty, and the transformation that is satya. Almost as if Garuda could guard and protect our temples and sanctuaries, inside. As though he were gargoyle. As though simple 'niceness' isn't enough, we need also truth telling.
Because this is true.
There is a difference between being nice and being truthful. Just as there as a difference between existing and feeling alive.
In the end, truthfulness does have the power to right wrongs and end suffering. Truth brings renewal and change and rebirth. Truth heals and amends, and dignifies everyone involved. But truth isn't any easier than nonviolence is. Just as ahimsa, satya is the practice of refining our lives. There is much dross to be burned away.