In the novel, Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, the famed explorer Marco Polo recounts fantastic tales of cities traveled to the aging emperor Kublai Khan. Though his kingdom is vast and remarkable, Kublai Khan has never ventured deeply into its landscape. In Calvino’s book, the grizzled Mongol ruler presses Polo to give him an account of his distant travels. Polo weaves a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes, tastes and smells of these invisible cities for Khan—each city more odd and vibrant then the next. Only at the end of the novel is it revealed to Khan—and to the reader—that, in fact, Polo has been describing the same city over and over again: his beloved city of Venice.
Our yoga practice is such a story. There are invisible cities within each and every one of us, and our yoga practice is an invitation to go deeper.
When we embrace the body and mind in a deeper, more contemplative study through our yoga practice, it’s like the traveler who journeys to distant lands, where customs, costumes, and colors appear as curiosities—sometimes marvelous, sometimes ordinary.
The yoga practice beckons us to travel to the same territory over and over again—to visit the landscape of the body and mind anew, to constantly see with new eyes and to continually mine for new treasures. Thus, the contemplative yoga practice is the discovery of the landscape of our own interior worlds—for wisdom and awakening can only happen in our own territory.
We use the yoga practice as a way to transform our relationship with our own self. The practice inspires us to find a new language, a new way to express ourselves along the spiritual path. As the journey through the landscape of a contemplative yoga practice continues, we break down the old, limited ways of viewing the world and the self. We begin to understand ourselves better and gain insight into the nature of our own existence, our own instrumentation. Like Marco Polo exploring Venice from every conceivable angle, we become experts in our own cartography. The traveler’s eyes are opened to the sheer splendor of the unseen cities within.
With prolonged practice, we are brought closer to the sense of spirit and become infused with divine energy. Our conscious awareness of ourselves, the world, and the concept of the divine expands—stretching to hold infinitely larger perspectives. That shift in consciousness happening within us comes from a willingness to let go and allow the moment of serendipity—supported and nourished by grace.
With my own practice, the most profound shift happens at the juncture of the rising of the practice as prayer and the moment of falling into silence. My body feels held and nourished. My mind feels relaxed and satisfied. That sangam—that confluence—where prayer and silence merge is the point of pure Self-awareness and integration, where the seer abides in her own essence: tada drastuḥ svarupe ‘vastanam. (PYS I.3) The Psalms say it in a slightly different way: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
In Invisible Cities, the dialogue that ensues between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo could be viewed as two spiritual seekers talking about the path. Khan represents the novice seeker who in his old age has begun to feel the stirring of the spirit. Khan’s own territory is vast, and yet is virtually unknown to him. Inquiring after Polo’s experiences, Khan is nourished by the fantastic tales. Although the stories serve as a catalyst for Khan to take up his own sacred practice, the travels of Marco Polo cannot be the travels of Kublai Khan. Khan must engage with the territory himself to come to a true understanding of its uniqueness. Khan must find his own voice, his own Venice.
Polo, on the other hand, is the advanced seeker relating the wisdom of the path from his vantage point. As evident in the unfolding stories, Polo has spent enormous amounts of time engaged with the territory of his own sacred city. In describing the same city over and over again, Polo is in essence describing himself. His descriptive language becomes the language of expressing the intimate experience of his own communion with self. And like Kublai Khan, his stories beckon us to map out the landscapes of our own internal and invisible cities.
Image: Marco Polo