In a different life I spent years studying Homer’s Odyssey. It’s an epic and it’s in Ancient Greek, so that’s why so many years were needed to achieve even my simplistic understanding! Dressed up as an adventure story, it’s ultimately a poem about nostalgia — a longing to return home, a bittersweet sense of something lost infused with the hope of re-finding it, and the slight melancholy of knowing that you can never truly return, that meantime everything has changed, you have changed, and a homecoming becomes a start of a new journey more than an end to anything.
I was entranced when I discovered Cavafy’s modern homage to Homer, with its refrain ‘pray that the road be long’ and its focus on the journeying more than the homecoming:
[…]Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
(full poem text available here).
Of course you can see why this appeals to my now yogi brain. The practice of yoga abounds with metaphors of journeying, taking steps, being on a path — as well as the illusory sense of destination or objective.
And then I read an Odyssey-inspired take on yoga starting from this very poetic translation of a few lines, where the perspective is turned around, so that the land itself is nostalgic for the return of Odysseus:
On these sands and in the clefts of the rocks, in the depths of the sea, in the creaking of the pines, you’ll spy secret footprints and catch far-off voices from the homecoming celebration. This land still longs for Odysseus.
This quote introduced these thoughts by Rolf Gates in his Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga:
Before yoga, each of us is like the land that longs for the return of its hero. We can feel this longing in our muscles, in our bones, in the movements that were once fluid and natural but that have become prematurely stiff and unreliable. There is a presence, a life force, that is conspicuous in its absence. But over time, this sense of loss becomes just another aspect of the subtle shifting backdrop of our lives. Yes, we were once possess of a youthful vitality, but many of us forgot we ever had such vigor and energy long before we came to our first yoga class. And then the moment of homecoming arrives. Unbidden, unsought — we hear the familiar footsteps on the porch…This life force has provided us with the priceless, miraculous opportunity of our yoga practice. All we need to do is cultivate an open heart, to express our gratitude both on and off the mat, and to celebrate the return of our hero.
It made me consider why I find asana practise so difficult, so confronting. The physicality of it brings me over and over to a sense of loss and nostalgia for something I once had. It makes me ache (literally!) for the child I once was, who ran wildly everywhere, who climbed trees, fought fearlessly with boys, always had scraped knees and elbows from physical exploration, the girl who used to climb out of her bedroom window at dawn for the sheer joy of running barefoot across the dewy lawn and feeling like the world belonged to her. Each physical exploration in asana practice, each stretch where muscles strengthen or release is a reminder of some perfect past when I was fast, fearless and full of fun.
But illness aside, I’d never return to that land of childhood. None of us can. There’s no turning the clock back, there’s no homecoming possible, however much we might yearn for some past innocence or lost halcyon days. And it’s not in any case as true was we think — rose-tinted spectacles are firmly in place, I know! The years of wandering, of feeling lost and cut off from my body and from my joyful childhood spirit are simply my own odyssey. My story has different details and perhaps a slightly abrupt plot twist, but Gates’ reflections makes me wonder how unique my story is in its overall narrative. Perhaps I’m not alone in my sense of exile?
My odyssey has taught me much and brought me to where I am, with all my flaws and frailties, but also with such wisdom, compassion and awareness as I have drawn from my experiences. I am all this now.
As Cavafy cautions against expecting Ithaka to make you rich, so I should not expect yoga to make me whole. I am whole. I am my own hero already. I always have been. Yoga is not a homecoming, it’s just a new chapter in the journey. A celebration of all that is possible, not a lamentation for all that is no longer.