ASHTANGA YOGA RICHMOND MURAL
Ashtanga Yoga Richmond (AYR) is a yoga studio located in Richmond, Virginia. AYR describes Ashtanga as “a physical form of yoga that synchronizes movement with breath through a precise sequence of postures called the primary series. Each posture in the sequence is a preparation for the next, and traditionally should always be practiced in order. The intention of the practice is to cleanse, stretch and strengthen the body, as well as focus and calm the mind.”
My good friend, Jill Vitamin, and I were commissioned to paint a mural in the AYR studio. As visual artists, and practicing Ashtanga students, we couldn't have been more excited to work on it. The wall originally had a gold leaf decal of a dancing Ganesh on a deep magenta wall. It was lovely, but with all the humidity in the studio it had seen better days.
Jill and I decided to pay homage to the old wall art and the Ganesh imagery dispersed about the studio, but update it with a more personal (and Ashtanga specific) touch.
Ganesh is arguably the most popular of all Hindu deities. He is revered as the god of wisdom, knowledge, and new beginnings; the remover of obstacles; patron of the arts and sciences, letters and learning. His image is often seen hanging above doors, or as a statue in temples and homes. Ganesh is remembered or prayed to before starting any rituals for other deities.
Ganesh is portrayed as having a human body and the head of an elephant. There are different interpretations on how he got the head of an elephant, but the short story is this: Mother Parvati wanted to take a bath while her husband, Lord Shiva was out. Parvati created a boy, Ganesh, to guard her home while she was alone. When Shiva returned, he was surprised to see a stranger guarding his home. After Ganesh denied him access to his own home, Shiva became infuriated and cut off Ganesh's head. After learning what had happened, Parvati was devastated and to console her, Shiva commanded his troops to find the head of the first living being they come across. This happened to be an elephant. Shiva placed the elephant head on the boy's body and brought him back to life, thus creating Lord Ganesh.
Kishore Asthana (The Times of India), summarizes the meaning of Ganesh's usual appearence:
"Ganesha's trunk symbolizes the fact that the wise person has both immense strength and fine discrimination. Ganesha has large ears. The wise person hears all. He has four hands. In one hand he holds a lotus, the symbol of enlightenment. In the other hand he holds a hatchet. That is, the old karma, all your sanskars, the accumulated good and bad of past deeds get cut when enlightenment comes. The third hand holds laddus, the round sweet-meats. They are the rewards of a wise life. Ganesha is never shown eating the laddus. The wise man never partakes of the rewards of his deeds. He is not attached to them. The fourth hand is shown blessing the people. The wise man wishes the best for everyone."
(Jill and I took artistic liberties and removed Ganesh's handheld symbols. We replaced these items with the phases of the moon, explained later.)
A quick note on Ganesh's broken tusk, by Linda Heaphy:
"One popular story is that he broke it off himself in order to write down the Mahabharata, one of the world's longest epic poems, as it was dictated to him by the sage Vyasa. In the process of writing, Ganesh's pen failed and so he snapped off his tusk as a replacement in order that the transcription not be interrupted. The broken tusk therefore symbolizes sacrifice and reiterates Ganesh's role as patron of the arts and of letters."
Ganesh is sometimes depicted sitting on top of a lotus. Our Ganesh sits upon a bed of lotus petals. Some petals float upward and outward. Artistically, the petals are simplified to include pops of color throughout the composition. Metaphorically, some of the petals are pieces of Ganesh, sending out good intentions and answering prayers.
In Ashtanga yoga tradition, practitioners treat full and new moon days as a time to take rest from daily practice. Observing moon days is a way to honor and become more aware of nature's rhythms. Ashtanga Yoga Center explains:
"The phases of the moon are determined by the moon’s relative position to the sun. Full moons occur when they are in opposition and new moons when they are in conjunction. Both sun and moon exert a gravitational pull on the earth. Their relative positions create different energetic experiences that can be compared to the breath cycle.
The full moon energy corresponds to the end of inhalation when the force of prana is greatest. This is an expansive, upward moving force that makes us feel energetic and emotional, but not well grounded. The Upanishads state that the main prana lives in the head. During the full moon we tend to be more headstrong.
The new moon energy corresponds to the end of exhalation when the force of apana is greatest. Apana is a contracting, downward moving force that makes us feel calm and grounded, but dense and disinclined towards physical exertion."
To pay respect to the Ashtanga tradition, Jill and I decided to have Ganesh holding the phases of the moon in his arms, rather than his usual symbolic totems. In his trunk he holds the full moon and atop his crown, the new moon. The full moon is light and floaty, while the new moon is dense and heavy. Fixed between the opposing forces of both, Ganesh is centered and balanced.
Ganesh is typically depicted with a mouse near his feet, or shown seated on a rat. Gita Mehta's book, Eternal Ganesha, simplifies one interpretation:
"Some devotees believe Ganesha's mouse represents a thief [...] gnawing at the tranquility of the inner self, and Ganeha's supremacy over his mouse symbolizes the conquest of egoism and the self-annihilating power of desire."
Again, to quote Kishore, "The reason for saying that Ganesha 'rides' on the rat is that the rat is among the greediest of all animals. It will keep nibbling at whatever is available, eating everything it can. Scientifically, too, the rat's teeth keep growing and it has to keep chewing on something to keep these within limits. The rat is a symbol of our senses, which are never satisfied. They crave new experiences, new tastes. Left uncontrolled, they keep growing forever. The wise person rides on his senses. He keeps them under control."
Instead of having the mouse at Ganesh’s feet, Jill and I decided to put it on the neighboring orange wall. It’s a subtle surprise to the viewer and a nice little contrast on the orange wall. Seeing as the mouse is an integral part of Ganesh's image, we felt it was the much-needed final detail to finish off our mural.
The Sanskrit text at the bottom of our mural is the opening prayer that is chanted before one’s practice in the Mysore room. Mysore is the traditional method for learning the Ashtanga practice in Mysore, India. AYR explains that in this method, each student has an individualized practice, which is developed and overseen by the teacher. Postures are learned one by one and as they are mastered, the student gradually builds a personal practice. During Mysore, students of all levels practice at their own pace and the instructor is available to help with the postures by means of hands on adjustments and reminding students of sequencing.
At the beginning of the Mysore class, the instructor comes to the front of the room and asks all students to come to the top of their mat. Together they chant "om," then chant the invocation. It ends with another "om," and students begin their practice.
It translates to:
“I bow to the lotus feet of the Gurus
The awakening happiness of one’s own Self revealed,
Beyond better, acting like the Jungle physician,
Pacifying delusion, the poison of Samsara.
Taking the form of a man to the shoulders,
Holding a conch, a discus, and a sword,
One thousand heads white,
To Patanjali, I salute.”
The chant is a blessing of gratitude to the lineage of teachers and their students who have passed down the ancient practice. It is meant to cleanse the energy of the space, as well as the body and mind before the physical practice.
Here is a time-lapse video of the mural process.
Thank you for watching!