Smashing Coconuts at Dawn.

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Morning, Chidambaram Temple, by the Shivaganga Tank

When I was in South India this past summer, one of my favorite things to do was to smash coconuts on the stone steps of the Ganesha Temple. We were visiting the Shiva Nataraja Temple complex in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, which houses many smaller temples inside its thick walls and elaborate gopurams. We would go there several times each day to wander, meditate, and to participate in the rituals and events surrounding the 10-day seasonal Ani Festival.

Inside a Shiva temple complex, you can find what I’ll describe as a Shiva family gathering, meaning any Shiva-related deity may have its own shrine. The shrine might be a tiny nook in the wall, a little side corridor, or its own separate enclosure. In enormous complexes such as Chidambaram’s approx 40-acre temple-village, there are sizeable individual temples located throughout the extensive courtyards that range from the modest scale of my downtown New York City apartment to the size of a large city block.

Walking toward the Shivakamasundari Temple at night

Shiva’s beloved, Shivakamasundari, has the biggest private temple on the grounds, followed by Shiva’s sons, the much-adored elephant-headed Ganesha and the Tamil favorite, the sly warrior Subrahmanya, who majestically rides a peacock. These two are well represented in multiple small shrines throughout the complex in addition to having their own free-standing temples in the courtyards surrounding Nataraja.

One evening we went as a group to the small Ganesha temple, and after moving through the rituals of mantra, mudra, and arathi that had now become comfortable, we descended the slight staircase back outside, then took turns hurling coconuts at the stone steps of the temple. Slam – Crack! So satisfying.

As each coconut shattered, gushing water and scattering its shards across the courtyard, a few children and one woman ran around gathering up the pieces. It felt simultaneously like an act of aggression, an amusement park activity, and a physical form of prayer.

Temple Offerings

We were walking quietly back to the Hotel Sharadharam later that evening and my friend  Zhenja LaRosa suddenly said, I need to do that thing again with the coconut. We’re getting up really early tomorrow morning and doing it again. I agreed. There was something profoundly cathartic about the coconut smashing. Each of us had been dealing with a lot of change in our lives, which had been both challenging and exciting, and there was something in this act that felt like an acknowledgement of a real break with the old and an embrace of the new, which is at the heart of the Ganesha paradigm.

Ganesha is often described as the remover of obstacles, but he also happens to be the one who places obstacles before you so that you have to confront something in your life. He is heavy and sedentary, yet can balance while dancing on the back of his little mouse, Musaka. He is complex and contradictory, just like us. He is that part of us that invites us to dare to create change, to be audacious enough to step over known thresholds into new places within the temples of our lives.

Little niche Ganesha, Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

Is this level of change scary? Yes. Is it exhilarating? Yes.  Do we sometimes need to break one thing down in order to build up something new? Absolutely. This is why Zhenja and I found our selves back at the temple steps at dawn, smashing coconuts on the warm stones and stepping through pools of their sticky and satisfying water.

Do this: Set an intention this fall. Choose a specific aspect of your life that you wish to dramatically shift or transform and write it down. Commit to taking specific steps outside of your normal habits and comfort zone. And every single day this fall, have a chat with Ganesha, Lord of Thresholds, symbol of new beginnings and of infinite possibility.


As a final note, my July coconut smashing gave birth to Writing Your Practice, a writing course designed specifically for yogis through the Yoga Teacher Telesummit. It begins on Monday, October 2. For more information, click   Writing Your Practice


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Susanna Harwood Rubin

Susanna is passionately committed to finding beauty in everyday life. She is a yoga teacher-writer-visual artist, which means that she rarely stops moving except to meditate. She is ERYT-500, has been teaching for over 12 years, and travels regularly to South India to delve into the traditions of Rajanaka Yoga that inspire her work. Her spiritual home is the great Nataraja Temple of Chidambaram. She teaches internationally, but is based in New York. Find her weekly classes at Twisted Trunk Yoga and Abhaya Yoga . Susanna's artwork is represented in collections such as the UCLA Hammer Museum, the Berkeley Museum, and the Addison Gallery of American Art. She lectured and wrote for MoMA for years, including co-writing the book "Looking at Matisse and Picasso," and she will still happily talk about Picasso for hours if you ask her. Susanna currently writes on yoga, writing, art, and life for a number of publications, including The Huffington Post , Mantra Yoga+Health , Rebelle Society , and YOGANONYMOUS . She gives talks on yoga, Hindu myth, and philosophy, and created the popular Writing Your Practice workshops and telecourses for yogis, applying yoga philosophy and myth to the practice of writing. Overall, she is amazed at the richness of her life. Find her on Twitter , Facebook , & Instagram


21 Responses to “Smashing Coconuts at Dawn.”

  1. AnitaAvalos says:

    I needed this message right now! Thank you thank you! I am totally in the process of tearing down my old life and my old limitations…it is both exciting and scary as I set out on new frontiers with no true roadmap. But I am making one and learning to listen to my heart and higher self. I've been thinking of getting a Ganesha to sit with me at my desk. Now I think it's a must!

    • Thank you Anita – I am glad that it was relevant for you. I feel like it is unendingly relevant for all of us, actually – definitely for me! try the mantra – Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha. Gam is Ganesha's bija, his seed syllable, containing all of his potency in that tiny dense syllable. It is a beautiful practice – I've been chanting it for the past 2 weeks with my students at Virayoga, where I teach in NYC. So powerful. I wish you courage & beautiful new beginnings!

  2. jbnorton says:

    Dear Susanna – thanks so much for the beautiful writing and the wonderful photos, but mostly thanks for the little vrtta at the end! I know exactly what to talk about with Ganapati…

  3. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  4. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Thank you so much. 🙂
    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  5. Bj Galvan says:

    Love it!!! Doesn't the coconut smashing symbolize the smashing of the mental mind constructs that blocks our recognition of the Hearts Divinity? SoOOOOO wish I would've been there with you and Zhenja doing the Coconut Smash…. We can name a Tandeva that.. :*)

    • yes! A friend recently told me that it represents cracking your head open so that your ideas can flow. Sounds a bit gruesome, but symbolically it works. The meaning is FELT when you do it. Within the layers of rituals, it just seems logical & deeply meaningful.

      And yes, I hope that we will do it together SOON. I long for Chidambaram & Nataraja's dance…

  6. Bj Galvan says:

    The 10th Dance of Natarja… the Coconut Smash…. ;*)

  7. Love it Susanna! I'm sharing it on my fan page!!

  8. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Bob W. Editor
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  9. […] my community. Some people will like that I published it here and others will not. I wrote a piece here last year in which I spoke about the need to smash apart the old to begin again, and so this is […]

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