Chewing my cud in the world religions section of the library a couple of decades ago, I stopped and tasted a poem that said the cosmos was really a horse of infinite size. I’ve never forgotten it, and I had never been able to find it again.
Then, it reared into my vision again last week as part of the required reading for a workshop I’m going to attend. Once again, I’m captivated.
The head of the sacrificial horse, clearly, is the dawn –
its sight is the sun; its breath is the wind;
and its gaping mouth is the fire common to all men.
Whoa, Silver!! The universe seems a disjointed place to me, a receptacle of ubiquitous disharmony: a civilization infected with wars, a natural environment wheeling out of control, galaxies streaking apart at the speed of light. But confronting essentially the same universe, the author of this passage perceived fluidity, power and purpose. For this person everything is as connected and coordinated as the muscles of a horse. Really, I’m stunned. There’s something to learn here….
How appropriate it is that this image of pervasive connectedness appears in the opening verse of a book whose title means “connections”. It’s from the Upanishads, the seminal text of yoga. It’s one of the Bibles Patanjali probably knew by heart.
Settling in with the image, I feel it tear away at the reins of my rationality. Sight is a capability, but this image equates it to the sun, which is an object. That doesn’t make sense. A horse’s gaping mouth is a body part, not much like a “fire common to all men” (the phrase refers to our ability to digest.) And how could a single horse be as big as the whole universe? This scope refuses to be understood; its equations confound my thoughts.
For me its impossibility makes this horse image strikingly beautiful. It’s a koan in ten dimensions.
Then my attention locks on the word “sacrificial” in the first line. This passage is definitely not conceptual poetry. It is artful but also bluntly utilitarian, perhaps even cruelly so. The words accompany a brutal and significant act: the sacrifice of a living horse. As the priest intones the words, he alerts us that his actions have cosmic as well as local dimensions. The slaughter of this majestic animal, the property of a wealthy man, also lays open a part each participant in the sacrifice, and thus the life-blood of the whole universe is revealed.
In the echo of these ancient words I hear the heartbeat of my own yoga practice. It too is strictly utilitarian, grounded in the movements of my own body, energy, and mind. Like the sacrifice of a horse it evokes powerful experiences, even when conceptual understanding has been stripped away. But this passage and my yoga practice can also go further. With wisdom originating far beyond reason, they coax my mind toward the infinite.
As I practice my yoga these days I must remember to perform my asanas as a ritual, remembering that the actions of my body and mind express my deepest intentions and even universal truths. It was among sacred rituals that yoga’s heart first started beating, and the energy boiling in its veins is as magical as the slaughter of a stallion. I believe that the sacrificial fire in this ritual is common to all men and women, as the opening words of the Upanishad suggest. It warms us each time we step up to a yoga mat.