Feeling it in our bones: Transcending the “Anava Mala”

I have a little story to tell. It turns out the girls track team at my local high school is the fastest in the country – they just won first place in the whole nation. No one can figure it out because it is a tiny little high school, but we know it has something to do with the coach because he gets amazing results year after year. He makes these average girls believe they can be that fast, and year after year they rise to the occasion.

What does he tell them?  How does he communicate it?  I remember reading in college about a psychologist named Rosenthal who came up with the concept of the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. He designed a study where they told teachers that a certain class they were teaching was made up of kids with high IQs – “gifted” students. And sure enough, these randomly composed classes consistently achieved significantly higher scores when  tested at the end of the year. And they wondered, what is it that the teacher is doing with these kids? Then they changed it around and told a new set of teachers, “these 10 kids in your class are the gifted ones, the ones with the high IQs” and again, those randomly selected 10 kids would end up outscoring the others. Rosenthal decided that there was a kind of non-verbal communication of higher expectations going on, something about the gestures, body language, the eye contact, (which is so powerfully communicative), something about the tone, that made these kids understand they were capable of achieving highly, and were expected to do so.

At one time, it was considered impossible for a human to run the mile under 4 minutes, but then in 1954 a guy named Roger Bannister cracked that mythical barrier and it didnt take long for many others to follow. The idea that a 4 minute mile was impossible had limited athletes for years, until the conviction that it was possible freed them to attain it.

(This is what the Shiva Sutras mean by “jnanam bhandha” : ‘knowledge’ is bondage).

We just learned a couple of weeks ago that of all the organs and the tissues of the body, it is the bones that are most receptive and responsive to neurochemistry, to the mood chemistry. So we really do ‘feel it in our bones’ when we have a belief or an emotion.

When we do yoga, we move our bodies around so are working with gesture, tone, and posture , to embed in the bones the understanding that we are one with the underlying principle of Universal Being – Consciousness, (Sat-Chit-Ananda) which yogic sages sometimes call the deathless Self.  It is good to have a teacher, a coach if you will, who can communicate that conviction when our own might falter. That is the function of the Guru.

So when we do hatha yoga the whole purpose is not to extract admiration for standing on our heads, but to prepare the body for a deep somatic cognition of our infinitude.

II: The Anava Mala

Kashmir Shaivism, a school of Tantric philosophy and technique, offers the analytical tool of the three “malas,” or impurities, to help us cognitively unveil the  obstacles to the experience of our infinite nature. These malas are likened veils obscuring the truth, and if they were tangible, physical things they would be easier to overcome, but the fact is they are ever so subtle! The three malas according to Shaivism are: anava mala, mayiya mala and karma mala. The mayiya mala is the illusion of multiplicity: we see the multiplicity of things, but we do not see the equally valid unity behind all things. The karma mala is the illusion of doer-ship. The ego creates a resume of actions, good and bad, which it identifies with as itself, getting farther and farther away from understanding that it is all universal power, volition and material that is ‘doing’ everything. And finally there is the anava mala, the particular veil we are concerned with today.

The word “anava” is derived from “anu” meaning tiny, infinitesimal, and this mala  is the illusion that we are strictly limited to being small, inadequate, finite individuals. One of my favorite illustrations  of the anava mala comes from the book of Exodus in the bible. The burning bush, God Himself, tells Moses to go to  Pharaoh and demand freedom for the Israelites. The first thing Moses says in response is:  “Who am I?” And what he means is, “Im nobody, not good enough, not powerful enough, to approach mighty Pharaoh.” Burning Bush says, never mind who you are, Im God, and Im telling you to do it. Then Moses goes on to have a long argument with the Bush as to his total inadequacy to the task: “I am thick of tongue” (they think maybe he stuttered). “The Israelites wont believe me” and finally ”Cant you send someone else?” The Bush gets plenty annoyed at Moses and keeps assuring him, Look, Im God and I am going to assist you, so get going!

This doesnt mean that the Exodus was a cakewalk. In fact, it was a harrowing ordeal that strengthened and tested the Israelites in epic proportions.

One thing, a paradox, about this aspect of egotism, this ‘poor little me, im so small, so powerless’ is that at the end of the day the anava mala is a kind of arrogance. Who the hell are you  to be soooooo monumentally limited that the Divine itself is incapable of working through you? The ego clings to  anxiety and inadequacy as a shield against the enormity of the Self. The ego fights its assimilation into the vastness with every weapon, especially this seemingly humble, innocent and harmless notion of insufficiency and unfitness. That is why the Guru Shakti, the Guru energy of the Universe, may put you through a harrowing, to show to you that you are capable, and indeed, infinite.

Back to the girls track team we considered at the beginning of class. The coach has a ‘track record’ of success, so that demonstrates the possibility that winning the national championship is possible. The thing is if the girls accept that truth  they also have to accept a path of intense discipline, mental and physical, to realize that potential. Do we accept the teaching that we are truly the Self of the Universe? Do you believe deep down in your bones that you are eligible for enlightenment, for Self Realization? Lets do our yoga asanas, this practice of the bold body language of skill and freedom, as if we are accepting the mantle of our ultimate identity. We will feel it in our bones…

May 19, 2009


  1. Wow. What a great commentary. Thank you.

Speak Your Mind