Purifying Through Fire: Creating a Fire Ceremony

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The ancient Vedic culture, from which yoga is derived, has a long-standing tradition of rituals designed to pay homage to and communicate with the divine. In a Puja ceremony, one makes simple offerings in gratitude for the blessings they have received and to return a piece of these gifts back to spirit. In a Yajna, the ritual is more extensive. Here Brahman or Vedic priests communicate with specific aspects of the divine through the messenger Agni, the fire God. Yajnas, as prescribed in the Vedas, follow a specific template which include intention, offerings, and specific mantras to be recited. The following article describes the basic tenants of Yajna and Puja to provide a template for practitioners to create their own fire ceremony of purification and transformation.

1. Begin in Fullness

A central tenant in yoga is the notion of “purnam” or wholeness. All that exists arises from wholeness and is in itself whole. It is essential in our communion with spirit to understand that we are not separate from and seeking union; instead we are unified and remembering.

Purnam exists throughout the entire life cycle; from the blessing of a newborn baby to the cremation grounds of Varanassi, the wholeness of life is acknowledged through its entirety. As an individual soul, or atman, we go through a journey of transformation as our life unravels to reveal new layers of understanding. Regardless of one’s disposition, place in life, failures or successes, each individual is of “purnam” and as such, divinely whole. The practice of purification serves to dissolve the illusion of separation and bring the aspirant back into their knowing of wholeness.

Application

As you prepare your body and mind for fire ceremony, do so from the intrinsic understanding that you are whole exactly as you are. Bring your whole self forward. Allow all parts of you, from the beautiful to unseemly, to open to the direction and guidance of spirit.

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2. Clarity of Purpose

The potency of Yajna and Puja rituals is derived from their depth of intent and purpose. Refined over thousands of years, these practices imbue artful intention into every action.  The ultimate purpose of Yajna is, as Sri Shri Ravi Shankar says is, “to bring only good to you and others…  to purify our mind, our life, and our actions.” We practice to honor the divine and communicate our willingness to be guided by spirit.

Application

Through meditation or journaling, get really clear on your intention for this ceremony. What does it mean to truly bring good to yourself and others? Feel the vibration of your intention in your cells and allow the experience to imprint in your psyche.  This intention will now permeate into all your preparations.

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3. Offerings

Offerings in Puja and Yajna ceremonies are made to honor the divine. Seemingly simple gifts, such as rice, fruit, or flowers, communicate deep gratitude for the blessings one has received and the wish to share these back with the divine. Each offering is empowered by the understanding that every gift is offered to the wholeness from which we arise.

Application

Gather items that represent the gifts you have received. Bits of food, money, and flowers may represent your nourishment, comfortable life, and the beauty of your world. You could also make a different type of offering by writing a letter of gratitude or creating a piece of art.  The more significant an offering is to you the more meaning it will carry in ceremony.

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4. Invocation and Chanting

Recitation of mantra and invocation of the divine is standard in Vedic ceremony. The invocation connects to a specific deity, or universal consciousness, through sanskritmantras. Sanskrit is an ancient energetic language which contains 50 syllables, each connecting to an aspect of the energetic body. Recitation of specific mantra acts as a key to unlock or unveil the divine within.  Just as a kind word can impact an individual, mantras have the power to create an energetic shift. What makes a mantra truly impactful is the presence and devotion of the aspirant.

Application

There are many ways to choose a mantra or prayer for ceremony. You can connect with a specific deity, universal consciousness, even an English prayer or affirmation.  Feel into your purpose for this ceremony. Which method resonates with you?

Connecting with an aspect of the Divine

Choose a mantra based on a deity with whom you resonate. For example; Durga is a warrior goddess who contains all the virtues of masculine and feminine. She slays demons with strength and ferocity while remaining infinitely compassionate and releasing their karmic debt. A mantra for Durgais “Om Dum Durgayei Namaha.” Other deities and mantras include; Ganesh, the remover of obstacles “Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha”; Shiva, the destroyer of evil “Om Namah Shivaya”; and Saraswati, the goddess of music and wisdom, “Om aim Sarasawatyai Namaha.”

Use a Universal Mantra

  • “Aum” an auspicious sound which contains the energy of the universe
  • Gayatri mantra: this mantra is considered the “Mother of the Vedas”
  • Mahamrityunjaya mantra: this mantra is often used for healing
  • Purnamadah mantra: a mantra to connect us to the wholeness of all

Create your own Mantra

Think of a short prayer or affirmation that has real meaning to you and connects with your intention. This can be recited in song or speech during the ceremony.

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5. The Messenger of Fire

Agni, the fire God, is considered a direct messenger to the spiritual realm. In the presence of Agni, our actions of arriving in wholeness, honoring the divine, and offering gifts of gratitude, are directly translated to spirit. Through this practice we purify the individual and collective consciousness.

Application

Prepare a place for the fire to burn. A clay pot, fireplace, outdoor firepit, or even a candle could be used. If you plan on placing your offerings into the fire be sure that your space is well ventilated and that all safety precautions have been taken. Prepare your space for ceremony.  You will need your offerings, mantra preparations, a comfortable seat, a clean space, and something to start the fire with.

 

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6. Executing your Fire Ceremony

With preparations complete, you are ready to begin your ceremony. Read the following list before you begin to keep the execution smooth.

  1. Light the fire and sit before it with eyes closed.
  2. Bring your whole self forward. In recognition of wholeness, bring all the pieces of yourself and your world forward as an offering to the divine. Become fully present in the moment.
  3. State your intention either aloud or internally.
  4. Make your offerings. As you place each offering into the fire connect to your gratitude.
  5. Recite your mantra aloud or in silence and open yourself to the wisdom of spirit. It is considered auspicious to repeat mantras in increments of 108. You can use a mala to help you keep count.
  6. Take time in silence. Gaze softly into the flames and allow the magic of Agni to penetrate your heart and spirit. This is a time to listen and purify. Allow thoughts and emotions to pass through you like clouds drifting across the sky as you remain present to the fire.
  7. Give yourself time; this practice can lend to a myriad of emotions from cathartic releases to feelings of distraction. Give yourself time to go through it all and offer all of it up to the flame
  8. End in gratitude. Thank the fire and universal consciousness for receiving you. Close by bowing before the flame in gratitude.

 

Rituals of the Vedic tradition offer methods for an aspirant to connect with the divine. Through Agni we may share our deepest intentions to the spirit realm and know ourselves and each other in wholeness. We honour this tradition by seeking deeper understanding of it’s tenants and practicing our own ceremonies with clear intent and a sincere wish to support the good of all.

Mantra Music for Ceremony



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The Glass Ceiling of Yoga: Body Positivity

The picture of a serene and beautiful yoga community that is celebrated by the media actually disguises a disturbing layer of normalized and ubiquitous body type discrimination. However, by unveiling a previously “invisible” glass ceiling over the Western yoga community, students, teachers, and administrators can find ways to effortlessly mold body-positive practice spaces for current, new, and future yoga practitioners.

Gender vs Body Type

I’ve encountered a lot of glass ceilings in my life. Honestly, when you’re black, queer, and born with female genitalia, you encounter them constantly and I’ve grown to expect situations wherein boundaries and limitations are the norm. However, there’s a glass ceiling that limits our Western yoga community to a troubling degree and it’s something I never expected to encounter. I mean, when “glass ceilings” are typically identified in Western society, they are almost invariably related to gender.

Ironically, the yoga community doesn’t really suffer from a gender glass ceiling, at least not one that negatively effects women.

Even though women weren’t taught asana until the 20th century, the vast majority of Western yoga teachers and students are female. And while discrimination against male yoga students and teachers is probably more common than any of us could imagine, it’s still not the most expansive and divisive glass ceiling in the yoga community.

No, the real ceiling within our community is based entirely upon physical presentation and, specifically, body type.

This ceiling is clear as day to those of us who have atypical yoga practitioner bodies. Instead of being slender, white and heaped with physical ability, there’s a growing wave of yoga teachers and students who are plump, multiethnic and powering through life with a wide range of disabilities. However, those of us who challenge the white washed yoga teacher stereotype face a very different practice landscape than our colleagues. For example, it’s inappropriately common to hear a story about a yoga student being shamed out of a yoga studio, based upon comments made by discriminatory yoga teachers and students.

In some communities, it’s nearly impossible for atypical yoga teachers to find teaching opportunities. And even when teaching opportunities are available, they are not on par with options for more traditionally bodied teachers. This problem is well documented within small communities of “different” yoga teachers, but it’s essentially invisible to those who don’t see themselves as “different”. And, what’s worse, there are way too many practitioners and teachers who don’t see this kind of discrimination as a problem. Thus, an “invisible” glass ceiling has domed over our community, and only those who have been discriminated and oppressed are fully aware of its existence.

What Does This “Glass Ceiling” Actually Look Like?

Here’s the thing, no one in the yoga community is ever going to openly bad mouth someone who looks different from the traditional idea of a practitioner. Ok, let me back up. I’m sure it happens. But being openly mean to people is not condoned in our yoga community. It’s a pretty big no-no, actually. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone reading this article right now is truly shocked by the idea that discrimination exists in a community which oozes the kind of saccharine sweetness that can only be honed by decades of marketing and product advertising. Unfortunately, the prettiest bandages can hide the ugliest wounds.

And beneath the surface of our saccharine sweet, mass media approved industry is a festering wound characterized by offensive language, discriminatory hiring practices and a bunch of other negativity that gets swept under the rug.

Admittedly, it’s not fun to acknowledge discrimination. In most cases, it feels very embarrassing, and many people would prefer to pretend as though they are not part of the problem. But anyone who turns a blind eye to this problem is also a key contributor to its existence. But how does this problem actually manifest and what does it look like? Let me paint a clearer picture for you.

Imagine you’re a curvy person who has finally decided to face your fear of practicing yoga in a group setting. Perhaps you’ve practiced yoga online with free videos, and you’re finally feeling confident enough in your understanding of asana to venture out of your living room and into a communally supportive environment under the watchful gaze of a knowledgeable instructor.

With a yoga mat under your arm and an emotionally swollen heart on your sleeve, you proudly stride into your local yoga studio.

When you approach the reception desk to check-in for class, the teacher (who looks, as expected, like a human Barbie doll) gives you a curt visual once-over. “Is this your first class?” Yoga Teacher Barbie chirps nonchalantly. While your knee jerk reaction may be defensive, you calm yourself down mentally. You remind yourself that she’s not trying to be offensive, and that she’s merely trying to take the proverbial temperature of a student she’s never met before. You smile and shake your head. “Nope, but I’m excited to take your class!” you say. Barbie smirks. “Well, this class is pretty intense,” she says.

You stare at her blankly. You’re wondering why she’s decided to tell you that the class is intense. Is it because she thinks you can’t handle the class? All of a sudden, you’re second guessing yourself and hiding sweaty palms. Why did you think you were strong enough to attend live classes? By the time you’ve rolled out your mat and gotten settled with props, the tissue thin confidence you brought into the studio has been shredded beyond repair by the self-doubt you’d managed to keep at bay prior to arrival.

During the class, you notice for the first time that your expressions of various yoga poses look a little different than other people in the class. Maybe your balance is a little less sharp, or you use props and modifications at times when other students seem to be able to go without. While that acknowledgement makes you a little self-conscious, it pales in comparison to the shame you feel at having your movements constantly corrected by Yoga Teacher Barbie.

Because, yes – Barbie has also noticed that your movements look a little different. And she’s decided to make your differences an opportunity for a teaching exercise by constantly correcting your alignment and offering more physical adjustments than you could have ever wanted. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if she’s offering more or less advice to anyone else in the room – in fact, it’s entirely possible that she offers this level of adjustment to every student. But your confidence has been shattered.

The emotionally swollen heart you proudly wore on your sleeve is now openly bleeding.

In the best case scenario, you somehow find the strength to believe in yourself again. In the worst case, you vow to never darken the doorstep of another yoga class for fear of ever feeling this way again.

The thing is, if you’re reading this right now, you’ve probably worn the moccasins of either Yoga Teacher Barbie or our Curvy Protagonist. Maybe both. And the weird thing is, I’ve heard this exact same story told by people who are not necessarily “curvy” or “different” in some other way.

In fact, it’s startlingly common for people who look just like Yoga Teacher Barbie to still feel discrimination at the hands of their instructors.

I could be wrong, but I think this is all the result of the fact that we live in a staunchly body negative society.

Body negativity is endorsed by the mass media – let’s face it, that’s how they get us to buy things. We make purchases because we find ourselves wanting or lacking in one way or another. Unfortunately, in addition to the mass media, body negativity has also fully permeated the yoga community. In fact, many teachers believe their discrimination isn’t discrimination at all – they see it as a kind dose of realism to students who don’t meet their personal standards of yoga perfection. Because that’s really all discrimination is – it’s the state of our judgment when we encounter people, places, and things which jibe with our personal definitions of perfection.

It’s sad to see this happen in a community which has the potential to include every single human being on the planet. Frankly, it’s not absurd to imagine a world where everyone practices a style or hybrid blend of yoga. However, that reality will never come to fruition if we don’t resolve the body negativity and discrimination problem. How do we do that? Well, fight fire with fire.

If body negativity is the disease, then body positivity must be the antidote.

The Antidote: Body Positivity

Body positivity is frequently confused concept. It’s pretty confused even within the body positivity community. You could get a different definition depending on the person you ask, the day of the week, etc. Some people think body positivity is solely tied up in body size acceptance, and others might even go so far as to equate it with fat acceptance and fat positivity. While fat positive movements have their rightful place of importance in the evolution of our society, I don’t believe they are synonymous with body positivity. Another popular way of describing body positivity is by equating it with constant self-pep talks. You know, a pattern of methods to remind yourself that “I’m Great! I’m Beautiful! I’m worthy of breathing oxygen in front of other humans without feeling suicidal!” While pep talks are rad and I fully endorse them, I don’t think they speak to the core of body positivity.

You see, body positivity assumes your constant perfection. It assumes that you’re always beautiful. That you’re always worthwhile. That you’re always capable. That you’re always strong.

In a truly body positive world, these statements are not up for debate – instead, they are seen as impenetrable fact. The only perspective up for debate is that of each individual – are you willing to accept your own perfection? Especially when the mass media tells you that those statements are definitely not true. Body positivity is the confidence to accept your constant perfection and beauty, no matter the proverbial weather. And, most importantly, to accept the constant perfection and beauty of those around you, even if they look and act different from yourself.

When we implement body positivity in our yoga studios and spaces, we create environments where students across an infinite spectrum of differences all feel as though they are equal to one another. This type of attitude is absolutely critical in order to see the yoga community grow beyond the one dimensional image offered by the media. Body positivity doesn’t mean teachers aren’t free to offer alignment tips and adjustments to their students without fear of offending someone. But it does mean that every word, every gesture, and every moment is an opportunity to be encouraging. To make someone feel welcome. To actively avoid discouragement.

Eventually, this kind of environment will lead to the end of classes where certain students are viewed as superior to their fellow students. Good riddance, as far as I’m concerned. This is a glass ceiling that desperately needs to be shattered.

We must all take responsibility for the role we play in a yoga culture which is thoroughly embedded in discrimination and negativity.

We need more than a few people who are proud of their bodies. We need a legion of yoga teachers, administrators and advanced practitioners who truly walk the walk of the eight-limbed path, and who will stop at nothing to spread the practice to every soul across the planet.

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