“Soul thrives as we jot down a thought in our diary or note a dream, and give body to a slight influx of eternity. Our notebooks then truly become our own private gospels and sutras … ” – Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore
I am a reader and a lover of stories. There is no question that stories shape our lives, those we are told and those we tell ourselves and others. Interestingly, stories also shape our yoga practice more than most of us know.
However, it is difficult in a life that is digital, technical and analytical to engage with our practices imaginatively. Maybe we can reclaim the phrase ‘making shapes’ as a positive expression of old stories told with our bodies. Whether yoga or art, it feels like soulful practices are something we need to actively work to establish through well crafted rituals or carefully carved out time, maybe engaging with the stories behind our practices can reawaken our sense of the sacred.
Part of establishing a practice can be making it feel ritualistic- a little easier I find in the half light of morning when the world isn’t fully awake. Through the ages visualisation (a form of imaginative engagement, day dream or vision) has been a key element of yoga. Of course when we mention visualisation we might first consider elements of the subtle body like the Kundalini Serpent, the cakra, white light inside or Yoga Nidra journeys. However, the posture names invite visualisations of our outer bodies as animals or incarnations of certain qualities. Through learning more of the stories and working with visualisation we can grapple with some of the rich symbolism of the forms we make in yoga.
Without reading the stories, you may still have entered a pose and wondered how or why it gained its name? Sometimes I muse on the essence of a fish, a cobra, a firm plank of wood or hero; the effort to reveal their qualities sheds new light on the āsana. I remember being at a workshop with John Scott in which an animated discussion took place regarding what the heron in krauñcāsana (heron pose) might be doing. One man was adamant that it was fishing and that the raised arms with broad elbows represented the heron’s wings raised to shade the water as the heron fishes. I love this image; though then I wondered why the dṛṣṭi (gaze point) might be up to the toes in the air rather down to the water. The analogy can only be taken so far I suppose; still the man’s ability to see the bird brought a brightness to his eyes when describing it which I had not seen before.
I am no expert, but over the years I have collected some of the stories of the āsana. Many of the posture names refer to sacred animals. Matsyāsana (the fish pose) is sometimes believed a reference to a fish that swam past Siva as he first spoke of yoga, so the fish became the original student of the original teacher – Siva. Garuḍāsana (eagle pose) is seen to represent Viśnu’s vahana (vehicle), which is an eagle. All the Gods have a vahana or vehicle, the most comic of which is Ganesh on his tiny mouse. Paśāsana (noose pose) is said to represent rotund Ganesh balancing on his mouse – it feels about right to me! In kurmāsana (turtle pose) the turtle is an avatar of Viśnu. The turtle is suggested to represent pratyāhāra (withdrawal of the senses) in the story of the churning of the milk ocean and as I move from thoracic extension in kurmāsana to bound flexion in supta kurmāsana this seems very much like a turn inward.
Finally, many practitioners improve their splits by working on deep lunges, which has a lovely parallel in that Hanuman is born on Añjana his mother like Añjaneyāsana (the lunges are named after Hanuman’s mother Añjana) is the mother of Hanumanāsana (splits, named after the monkey god Hanuman).
The pose Hanumanāsana (splits) is said to represent the great monkey god Hanuman leaping from India to Sri Lanka to bring Sita back to her lover Ram. A great leap of love.
Posture names refer to famous sages like Viśmamitra and Vasiṣṭha who are given particularly powerful poses. It is pure comedy to me that at the beginning of Ashtanga third series there are two beautiful poses named after these two sages who famously got into a conflict (in many versions of the tale it is over a cow). Pattabhi Jois reversed the names of the poses; calling the first Viśmamitra and the second Vasiṣṭha where all other yogis referred to them the other way around. In doing so he kept their conflict alive and well in the afterlife (see the image below). I visited the Sage Vasiṣṭha’s cave in the Himalayas in my twenties and love this pose all the more for that visit and the stories that surround him.
The poses also sometimes reflect a quality like Sukhāsana (pose of ease) or Sayanāsana (restful pose). We might also consider the trinities of yoga reflected in trikonasana (the triangle pose). The triangle is one of the strongest forms in nature and the three sides can be seen to reflect the three guna, the waking, dreaming and deep sleep states represented in AUM and the trinity of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the maintainer and Siva the destroyer. It is undoubtedly an auspicious and potent pose.
When we delve into the stories of the poses our bodies themselves become a way of exploring new layers of meaning, depth and imaginative engagement in our practice. Maybe explore some visualisation when you return to the mat; it is a good reason to learn the pose names too!
I am running a workshop on Yoga Myths of the Asana for Edinburgh Community Yoga this November, why not join me: