Ashtanga practitioners typically take the days of the Full Moon and the New Moon “off” from practicing yoga.
Off days can be a funny thing: you’d think that with an “intense” almost daily practice, most of us would be happy to have an excuse to sleep in, eat a leisurely breakfast, and go to the beach instead of doing stuff that feels like this:
Interestingly enough, though, this isn’t always the case.
In the dark of late Monday night, I returned to San Diego from a backpacking trip through the Owens Valley:
And, even more awesomely, there is also Ghost Dancing:
According to the Paiutes, the North Star is actually the result of a mountain climbing excursion gone awry:
“Once upon a time, Na-gah, the mountain sheep, was brave, daring, sure-footed, and courageous. His father was so proud of him and loved him so much that he put large earrings on the sides of his head and made him look dignified, important, and commanding.
Every day, Na-gah was climbing, climbing, climbing. He hunted for the roughest and the highest mountains, climbed them, lived among them, and was happy. Once in the very long ago, he found a very high peak. Its sides were steep and smooth, and its sharp peak reached up into the clouds. Na-gah looked up and said, “I wonder what is up there. I will climb to the very highest point.”
Around and around the mountain he traveled, looking for a trail. But he could find no trail. There was nothing but sheer cliffs all the way around. This was the first mountain Na-gah had ever seen that he could not climb.
He wondered what he should do. He felt sure that his father would feel ashamed of him if he knew that there was a mountain that his son could not climb. Na-gah determined that he would find a way up to its top. Again he walked around the mountain, stopping now and then to peer up the steep cliff, hoping to see a crevice on which he could find footing.
He turned to see a cave cut into the rock- it looked as good a route as any other, so he began climbing up through it. Soon it became so dark that he could not see. Loose rocks began to roll down behind his feet. Na-gah decided maybe it was time to turn around. But when he turned to go down, he found that the rolling rocks had closed the route below him. Only one option was left: he must go on climbing.
After a long climb, he saw a little light. Looking around him, he became almost breathless: he had reached the summit!
He saw great cliffs below, in every direction. and saw only a small place in which he could move. Nowhere on the outside could he get down, and the cave was closed on the inside…
Around this time, his father was out walking over the sky. He looked everywhere for his son, but could not find him. He called loudly, “Na-gah! Na-gah!” And his son answered him from the top of the highest cliffs. When Shinoh saw him there, he felt sorrowful, to himself, “My brave son can never come down. Always he must stay on the top of the highest mountain. He can travel and climb no more.”
“But!” He had an idea. ”He will not die. I will turn him into a star, and he can stand there and shine where everyone can see him. He shall be a guide mark for all the living things on the earth or in the sky.”
The Na-gah story illustrates perfectly one of the oftenest-repeated maxims in mountaineering: Making it to the top is optional, but coming down is mandatory. And this is sort of why we take a moon day, too: unless you’re a Paiute deity whose dad has the power to turn you into a star, coming down is an integral part of the climb. Rest days are part of the ebb and flow of our practice. Just like you’re supposed to love the paddling as much as catching the wave, the moon days serve to remind us that a complete practice follows a larger rhythm as well as the daily smaller one. The ascent and the (comparatively) restful downhill are all part of the same mountain.
“How can you explain that you need to know that the trees are still there, and the hills and the sky? Anyone knows they are. How can you say it is time your pulse responded to another rhythm, the rhythm of the day and the season instead of the hour and the minute? No, you cannot explain. So you walk.”
– Author unknown, from New York Times editorial, “The Walk,” 25 October 1967
And I sort of knew all that “being mindful of the greater flow” stuff was true when I startled awake this morning, the first in several where the warm sunshine on my face served as an adequate alarm clock. Still sore-shouldered (those backpacks!) and grimy, I stumbled out to the car and watched as my body automatic-piloted itself to the Ashtanga Yoga Center.
One look around the parking lot was enough- after being out in the wilderness and admiring the heavy, round moon overhead only hours before, I had forgotten what that full moon really meant.
Oh well. Maybe today is the right one to try that Paiute Ghost Dance thing.
Happy Full Moon!
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
– John Muir, 1913, in L.M. Wolfe, ed., John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, 1938