We all love yoga and its benefits it has on our mind and body. Despite that it is difficult to talk about yoga without getting into debates on whether it is purely a fitness/well-being regime or whether it is more inclined towards spirituality or occult.
In order to avoid such acrimonious debates or controversies, the yoga we know today is stripped off its heritage and has now become a medium for physical fitness and wellbeing rather than being about wisdom of mind and soul. There are very few yoga practitioners in the world who are aware of the philosophies, stories, symbols and rituals that have surrounded this spiritual discipline for over 2000 years.
Yoga asanas that are being practised today have many variations, but they all have a story; ancient and probably forgotten. In this article, I have tried to list down a few yoga asanas and the stories behind them (few because it is quite difficult to accommodate all of them in this article. Hence, I have chosen some popular yoga asanas).
Before I get to the asanas, I would quickly like to mention as to how the principles of yoga and yoga asanas reached mankind.
Atop Kailasa, the abode of the Indian gods Shiva and Shakti, Shiva who is also known as Adiyogi, imparts the knowledge of yoga to Shakti. He taught her the 84 yoga asanas intimately. On overhearing this transfer of knowledge, the serpent coiled around Shiva’s neck took the form of Adishesha(a serpent with thousand heads), who later took birth as Maharishi Patanjali, on Vishnu’s advice and imparted this knowledge to mankind which came to be known as Yoga Sutras.
Now to the asanas
Surya Namaskar (Bowing to the Sun)
Surya, the Sun god is depicted riding a chariot with seven horses which stand for seven days of the week. The 12 wheels of the chariot depict 12 months of the year and the eight spokes of the chariot wheels indicate the traditional divisions of the day.
Hanuman (popularly known as the monkey god) was an exceptionally strong and curious child who wanted to learn everything about the world. His mother, Anjani, told him that Surya sees everything and that he should talk to him. Upon hearing this, Hanuman approached Surya and requested that Surya accept him as a student. However, Surya said that he couldn’t, as he constantly travelled and cannot pause even for a moment. A determined Hanuman offers to become Surya’s charioteer so that Surya could teach him while travelling. Surya warned him that he would not be able to bare the pain and the heat. Hanuman replied that knowledge cannot be acquired without some suffering. Surya agreed and taught Hanuman everything he knew. Enriched with knowledge over thousands of years, Hanuman became the god with infinite wisdom and power. Hanuman expressed his gratitude to his Guru by designing the Surya Namaskar.
Vriksha-Asana (The Tree Pose)
Vriksha (tree) plays a vital role in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Most of the deities in these religions are associated with some or the other tree. Trees are known for their strength and patience as they stand firm while enduring the changes of climate and seasons.
Behind this pose, is the story from the Indian epic Ramayana, where Sita, the queen and wife of Lord Rama, was abducted by the asura (demon) king Ravana. Ravana, an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva, was a learned scholar well-versed in the four Vedas and six shastras. However, he had his vices.
After abducting Sita, he brought her to his kingdom Lanka and offered her to stay in his palace. Ravana tells her that he, being a generous man, would ask her to accept him every day for a year after which he would do as he pleased. An adamant Sita, decides to live outside the palace, in a grove of the Ashoka trees. In Sanskrit, Ashok means “without sorrows”. Sita lived under those trees guarded by demons. She continually prayed to her husband Lord Rama to come and rescue her. She sat against the Ashoka tree and focused her mind on Rama. She imagined that the trees carried her longings, and the leaves broadcasted her prayers to Rama. Sita, who was also the daughter of Bhoomi, Mother Earth itself, had a great bond with rooted and growing things. Sensing her turmoil, the trees whispered to her and asked her to stay still, to be calm and steady just like them-and remember her husband.
Her prayers were answered when Hanuman, Rama’s aide, and devotee, arrived in the groves with a message from her husband Lord Rama.
Here Sita is depicted as the soul, Lord Rama, the cosmic soul and Ravana, the ego that separates the soul from the cosmic soul.
The asana lies on the principle of drawing power from the earth, calming your mind and staying steady like the Vriksha. It teaches you to hold yourself together and stay calm and you would get through the worst times.
Virabhadra-asana I, II and III (Warrior Pose 1, 2 and 3)
Vira in Sanskrit means “brave” and Bhadra means “decent or righteous”. Thus, this is the yoga asana of a ‘righteous warrior’.
Before marrying Parvati, Lord Shiva was married to Sati, daughter of King Daksha. Sati married Shiva against Dakha’s wishes as Daksha considered Shiva to be an unworthy groom. Later, Daksha conducted a yagna (a ritual) where he invited all the gods except Shiva. Shiva was quite indifferent to all of this, but Sati was insistent upon gaining her father’s respect. She attended the ceremony uninvited and ended up facing humiliation. Unable to bear the humiliation and anguish, she offered herself as sacrifice to the fire. An unmoved Daksha continued with the ritual. When the news of his beloved wife’s death reached Shiva, he was devastated and furious. In that rage, he pulled out his hair and created Virabhadra. Armed with menacing weapons and his body adorned with snakes and skulls, he marched onto the grounds of the yagna holding his sword above his head (Warrior pose 1) and met Daksha’s gaze. He then took aim (Warrior 2) and finally struck the fatal blow which decapitated Daksha (Warrior 3).
Here Sati represents the Heart, Shiva represents the Higher Self and Daksha represents the ego and everything that comes along with it- anger, arrogance, vindictiveness.
This yoga asana series teaches us to practice resolve, control and conquer these negative emotions and let go of them.
Hanuman-asana (monkey pose)
After Sita’s abduction, Lord Rama called his trusted aide, Hanuman and asked him to find Sita and deliver his ring to her as an assurance that he would come and rescue her. On reaching the southernmost tip of the land, he felt challenged by the vastness of the ocean. He sat down and started doubting his own abilities (he was cursed by the sages that he would forget his magical abilities such as to fly, to infinitely grow in size until he was reminded). He sat on the shores and prayed. He was suddenly rejuvenated and felt even more determined to fulfil his mission.
He propelled into a powerful leap by stretching forward and up with one leg and pushing back with the strength of his other leg and mightily crossed the vast ocean in one giant leap; despite the efforts of the water demoness to stop him. He landed in Lanka and delivered Rama’s message to Sita.
This yoga asana symbolizes faith when all hope is lost and strength in the face of self-doubt.
Natraja-asana (The Dancer pose)
Once a group of sages were performing some rituals to obtain power and control the world. Shiva, in the form of a naked ascetic confronted this group. An argument ensued which later took form of a battle where the sages chanted occult mantras and created a tiger, a serpent and a demon, which was a representation of the twin vices of arrogance and ignorance, to attack Shiva.
Shiva remained calm. He calmly stripped the skin of the beast alive and wrapped it around himself. He picked up the serpent and coiled it around his neck. Finally, he kicked the demon to the ground with one leg and started to dance on its back.
As Shiva (Natraja) moved, his audience realised that he wasn’t merely dancing but communicating. He was encircled by a ring of fire which represents the cycles of birth and death. His moving hands and legs represented the continually changing world. Balancing a drum which symbolised rhythm and time, in one hand, the flame of creation and destruction in the second, making the Abhaymudra (mudra of fearlessness) with his third and the palm of the fourth hand turned inwards and across the chest, which represents tirodhana or concealment, Shiva calmly crushed the demon with one foot and elegantly lifted his second foot off the ground; a perfect display of grace in chaos.
This pose symbolizes that a calm and steady mind can easily destroy arrogance and ignorance. It teaches us self-control, humility, mastery over oneself and how to be calm while facing the various challenges of life.
From all that was described above, it can basically be inferred that Yoga has many life lessons, which needn’t be necessarily looked at, just through the prism of religion or health. It should instead be looked at as a holistic approach towards how best to live one’s life.