18 Mar '14
Heat, Wealth and Wonder: Yoga’s California-India Connection, at the Asian Art Museum, BLOG MARCH 2014Posted in Blog, Lectures by Eric Shaw
California’s fightin’ female namesake (Queen Califa), and the state’s long yoga dance with India through the ages, was the subject of my talk at SF’s Asian Art Museum on March 6th, 2014.
Reporting on-site from the Eureka State, this is how the story goes . .
A diamond-shaped land protected by oceans and a battle-line of mountains, India’s culture yielded in only the smallest way to migrations by land and sea over the years, and while most know California is alone in its uniqueness, few know the pre-modern state was islanded by northern forests, southern deserts, eastern mountains, and western waters–closeted from far-away cultures somewhat like old, old India.
In 1510, the Spanish seafarer, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, saw Cali as a real island. He called it “California” after Queen Califa, a story-book ruler of an isle awash with Amazons. The idea came from natives who said warrior women strutted nearby on the unexplored Baja Peninsula.
Aside from nude weaponized babes, he hoped California had hills of gold and rich cities
If he was a story-book yogi who lived for centuries, Cabrillo could have fulfilled his fantasy, for Cali was deluged with bling in the ’49 Gold Rush, LA got glitzy Beverly Hills in the 20th century, and San Francisco’s sock-you-in-the-gut-price rental market will clock you in the eye right now if you just google Craigslist.
As an undying tourist, Cabrillo could have witnessed nude gatherings in Cali and India even bolder than the Amazons’ battle-lines (Burning Man and The Yogi-rich Kumbha Mela), and he could have seen Indian Indians come to NorCal in the 1890s when Sikhs fled the British East India Company’s money-mad laws to stay rent-free on Angel Island before earning citizenry and settling up in Lodi-town, up north.
Cabrillo was part of a slim group of swashbuckling seekers of fame and lucre who shadowed Columbus’ western wandering after 1492.
Queen Elizabeth made Sir Francis Drake a knight for robbing Spanish gold here shortly before she chartered the infamous British East India Co. in 1600. The Virgin Queen’s darling skirted California’s coastline in 1579.
The land was just a lonely island to him–like England. He parked his boat in a bay near Pt. Reyes, and called Cali, “New Albion” after Britain’s sad poetic name.
It’s the etymology behind the sleepy Bay Area city we call “Albany.”
About the same time that yoga was first described in the India’s Upanishads, Britain was called “Albion” in an aged Greek travel guide, The Massaliote Periplus, composed in the 6th century BCE.
Cultural flagships of West and East, Greece and India have been bound together forever. Notably, the naked yogi sages (gymnosophists) were fave-raves of the world-roamer, Alexander the Great.
Eventually, India would charm California by sending its own “conquerors.”
Posture teachers came here shortly after the Sikhs.
In 1891, the Tantrik master, Sylvias Hamati, strutted his stuff in high-flying SF with his pal, the yogi entrepreneur Pierre Bernard, after laying low in the dull old US Midwest for years.
Needless to say, unlike Dorothy, they never went back again.
Marquee yoga teachers have washed ashore ceaselessly since. And Cabrillo’s Amazonian predictions have been fulfilled by stars like Shiva Rea and Indra Devi.
The Latvian, Devi came to SoCal from India to teach movie queens in 1947–precisely 3 decades before Rea was born there.
Choosing a rough-and tumble model of femininity from India, we can visualize both as “Vajrayoginis.”
What are Vajrayoginis? Yoga tradition illustrates them Inside up-pointing and down-pointing triangles–expressing Sky-focused male energy, and Earth-focused female energy (as you might suspect if you’re hot on the heels of our theme).
Like Amazons, Vajrayoginis live between gender longitudes.
“Vajra,” the upturned triangle, is the male yang principle.
A “Yogini,” is a female yogic practitioner or demigoddess, whose symbol is the downturned triangle: the yin “Yoni.”
The names “Indra Devi” and “Shiva Rea” are riotously female-male in their meaning.
Indra / Devi is a killer combo, meaning “Male Warrior King” + “Goddess,” and Shiva / Rea is equally androgyne, meaning “Male God of the Vajra” + “The Feminine Principle in Nature.”
“Rea” comes from the Sanskrit rayi found in the 200 BCE Prasna Upanishad.
Like its chief teachers, world yoga is becoming sooo killer Californian; yoga’s current Amazonian cache is unchallengeable.
The old male yogis posed and chanted in militant isolation (despite the rare Kumbha Mela), but moderns twist and shout in a social mode, loving a good party and giving Spiritual Activism a big hug.
Female teachers nurtured here drive yoga’s evolution. Hybrid yogas by Nischala Joy Devi, Seane Corn, Rama Jyoti Vernon, Dana Demara, Jenny Sauer-Klein and an army of others, find riches in the mad clutter of the Earth as much as the distant divinity of the sky.
Avoiding a Shiva-like loneliness, yoga moderns show feminine cuddley-ness toward the world, going outward to nurture it, and going inward to “salve” the self.
In naming California for a warrior queen, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo poked his head beyond time, foreshadowing the Vajrayoginis so prominent here.
In his day, feisty Queen Isabella knitted together Aragon and Castille’s Kingdoms when she coupled with King Ferdinand 3 decades before 1492–the date she bankrolled Chris Columbus to sail the ocean blue. These royals wiped out the last Islamic khalifate on Spain’s peninsula, (Granada) in 1492, too. Riffing on the war, Garcia Rodríguez de Montalvo published The Adventures of Esplandin, and his make-believe Queen “Califa” was named for the eclipsed “Khalifates.”
Maybe–just maybe–we should get cozier to India now and imitate a ferocious Indian queen by re-connecting that first-letter “K” to our name.
A newly-christened “Kali – Fornia,” would coyly marry India and California’s unique identities in history and geography and yoga.