Recently we were looking at the story of Shiva as Neelakanta, "the blue-throated." The gods and demons (anti-gods) teamed up to churn the milky ocean in order to produce the elixir of immortality (amrta).
This churning produced many things, and accompanying the amrta came a deadly poison called halahala. "Halahala" is an onomatopoeiac Sanskrit word --- it is literally the sound of choking or gagging.
Shiva drank the halahala and held the poison suspended in his throat, which turned blue.
The poison can neither be digested nor spat out; Shiva cannot assimilate it as the nourishment of food, yet neither can he vomit it out or otherwise get rid of it.
A literal understanding of the symbolism is to see the poison as anything negative, for example, the qualities we don't like about ourselves.
(If you don't have any qualities you dislike about yourself, many yoga texts will provide a list for you. Guruji was fond of the ari shat vargas, the six poisons around the heart.)
Sometimes it is nice to be reminded that we are every character in the stories: gods and demons, sure, but more importantly Shiva, as well as the milky ocean, the nectar, and the poison.
We have oceanic depths, swirling in which are great shapes, deep tidal impulses, unconscious desires and aversions, some genetic disposition, some cultural imprinting, perhaps some deep-coded cultural or historic archetypes.
Our yoga practice is a daily churning of these depths, and it is from these depths that is disgorged our gifts, our nectar.
However we also churn up halahala, and like Shiva holding the poison in his throat, we cannot absorb, digest or assimilate the halahala --- it is deadly toxic.
However, we can't spit it out. This churning is a process that is both unfinished and unfinishable. The practice of yoga asks us to develop a relationship to this daily process of "purification," or churning, and increase our ability to live with our halahala.
What is interesting, too, is that what is toxic to you is undoubtedly food for someone or something else, and toxicity is also utterly dose-dependent, and not an innate or inherent quality (drink enough water and it'll kill you). What is one person's delusion is not another's (can there be more than one kind of delusion?)
Just like Shiva with the blue throat, an Ashtanga yoga practice helps us develop a more rich way to speak through and not as our own poison, perpetually lodged in our own throats.
Jason owns and directs Portland Ashtanga Yoga.