Tonight is the Hindu celebration of Mahashivaratri. It is the night dedicated to Lord Shiva, who represents the divine, auspicious, and eternal essence that exists in all things. One of the traditional ways to honor this occasion is to chant Lord Shiva’s name throughout the night.
I first celebrated Mahashivaratri during my first monthlong visit to India in 1995. I still remember standing on the roof of a temple pavilion in the darkness of the early morning hours, listening to the sounds of Om Namah Shivaya being chanted in a courtyard below.
As the syllables of the mantra rose up into the night sky to be received by the heavens, I too was transported into a mystical, majestic, and pristine realm of purity and peace.
It’s been 20 years since I last celebrated Mahashivaratri in India. But I still vividly remember those exquisite nights of chanting. When I become quiet, I can sometimes even touch that place of transcendent awareness.
Each year, I look forward to this night as a time to recall my experiences and remember this unchanging essence of peace, purity, and tranquility within myself.
The role of memory in yoga is fascinating. In Light on Life, BKS Iyengar writes:
“Memory is useful if it helps prepare you for the future. To know whether or not you are moving forward. Use it to develop. Memory is useless if it brings about a repetition of the past.”
There are memories of wonderful and expansive experiences, like mine on Mahashivaratri. These memories take us closer to the truth each time we relive them. And, there are memories that hold us small when we identify with them.
Part of what we seek to do in yoga is replace the limiting memories with new imprints that serve our inner growth. We learn to recognize and discern past associations that constrict and disempower us and gradually release them, while strengthening the memories that are expansive and empowering.
This happens in the mind as well as in the body.
In yoga, we understand that memory isn’t only in the mind. The body also has a memory, the cells and muscles have a memory. The body, like the mind, holds the imprints of past physical, emotional, and psychological hurts.
The body also has an intelligence and wisdom that is free from those hurts. Through asana, we endeavor to awaken the intelligence and wisdom of consciousness in the body to create new imprints. In doing so, we replace limiting patterns with those of greater freedom.
Consider how memory affects your experience of asana practice.
Has it ever happened that your body has guided you in practice to do something you didn’t necessarily plan on doing but the body said, “I remember this, let’s do it!”?
Have you had physical injuries that made you hesitant to do certain movements or attempt certain poses? There might be an association of fear or vulnerability that has imprinted itself in your memory.
There are memories that are useful to us in practice, such as “When I engage my upper back, my old shoulder injury doesn’t bug me after Sun Salutations.”
“I remembered last time when I kept my legs and glutes active in Cobra pose, my lower back didn’t hurt.”
There’s no memory inherently good or bad, right or wrong, but the process of sharpening our awareness and honing our discernment about how we make use our memories is a crucial part of a transformative yoga practice.
When we catch ourselves identifying with memories that no longer serve us, whether in asana practice or in life, we are able to begin to let them let go, at least temporarily, for the sake of opening to a new possibility. After all, memories aren’t true or real in the present moment, they are a past association.
And, like my experiences on Mahashivaratri, practice gives you a chance to make the memories of your great experiences alive and real again. Remember those times when you have glimpsed freedom in the body or an expansive inner state that was independent of thoughts and associations, good and bad, even beyond your conceptions of freedom and limitation. These, ultimately, are perhaps the most useful memories to hold and make real for ourselves because they have the power to propel us forward each time we relive them.
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