Origins of Yoga
Yoga’s origin can be traced thousands of years ago in the Himalayas, long before the first religions were born. The yogic science was then spread all over the world by the seven sages (or Sapta Rishis). However, it is in India that the yogic tradition has been documented within the Upanishads to guide humans and maintain the balance on Earth. The Upanishads, which can be translated as “sitting down near”, referring to the student sitting down near the teacher, are the Sanskrit scriptures of Hindu philosophy which forged the spiritual core of Hinduism.
Nevertheless, Yoga does not belong to any specific religion. Yoga is essentially a spiritual discipline, a way of life. The core of the Yoga practice is to bring harmony between the body, mind, soul, and spirit and to overcome all kinds of sufferings due to the illusion of separation of our individual consciousness from the Universal Consciousness (Brahman).
The second verse in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali — widely regarded as the authoritative text on yoga dating from somewhere between 5,000 B.C. and 300 A.D. — states “Yoga is the cessation of fluctuations of the mind.” (“Yoga citta vritti nirodahah” ).
What is an asana?
Asana is outlined In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Traditionally, asana refers to the seated posture in Yoga, used for meditation, from the Sanskrit meaning “seat”. The practice of asanas supports the body to sit-up right in a steady and comfortable way during long meditations.
Asanas are part of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, listed below:
The Eight limbs of Yoga :
1. Yama (behaviours)
2. Nyama (self-discipline)
3. Asanas (postures)
4. Pranayama (breath exercises)
5. Pratyahara (senses withdrawal)
6. Dharana (concentration)
7. Dhyana (connection)
8. Samadhi (interconnectedness)
Originally, the asanas of hatha yoga have a spiritual purpose, serving to explore the conscious and unconscious mind and aim to attain samadhi, the state of interconnectedness or ecstatic consciousness. Thus, asanas are part of a process beginning with the connection of the body and the breath, the mind and the inner-self.
As per the classic texts of Hatha yoga, 84 asanas were taught by Lord Shiva. Other scriptures such as Gheranda Samhita suggest that Shiva presented 8.4 million asanas, one for each living creature in the universe (not too much for a God).
The number of asanas has been increasing over the centuries and evolve into hundreds of variations amidst the different styles of yoga.
The practice of asanas is significant to strengthen the physical body and focus the mind, while creating space for spiritual growth. The body is the physical container for the soul. Aside from bringing strength and flexibility, asana postures stimulate all the physiological anatomy such as the immune, respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems. Asanas can be viewed as a kind of harmonization, a state of deep inner connection, and therefore should be distinguished from other kind of physical exercises.
It makes sense to recognize the practice of asana as part of the eight limbs of yoga as it allows the flow of prana (life force) to circulate freely and thus uplift the energetic body. A regular practice supports the change of attitude by developing awareness, discipline, and concentration. It is a great preparation to pranayama and meditation.
Asanas are often named after some ancient yogic sage, deity, or sacred animal.
Mythology of the postures
Most all traditional Indian arts are depictions of myths and symbols. They are incredible tales, relating events from the past and elevating it with greater meaning than the actual event (if it even happened). Yoga’s asanas are deeply rooted in the Indian culture and therefore benefit from this connection with the sacred.
Myths deliver messages free of interpretation that could be understood at their own time. Often mysterious, paradoxical, symbolic, sacred, provocative, soothing, and liberating at their core. They have the power to connect each one to his path.
The myths behind the asanas have much to teach us. Understanding the story behind a posture enhance the benefits of the mental and spiritual connection with the physical sensations. It allows the practitioner to go beyond the physical execution by understanding its meaning.
Each story brings up the human side of the gods, their uncertainties, flaws and failures. It makes it possible to identify with one’s current or past challenges in life.
Let’s open the curtain and discover a glimpse of the wonderful myths which lie behind 5 common asanas in the modern Yoga practices.
Hanumanasana (front split) — pose of the gods
Anjaneya, son the god of the wind, Vayu, was half mortal and half divine. As a child, he was not controlling his power and ended up creating chaos on earth, which led him to be killed by the god Surya (the Sun). His father claimed his child to be brought back to life. An agreement could be found between Vayu and Surya and Anjaneya could revived under certain conditions. He would be renamed Hanuman, and cursed with short-term memory so that he would never recall his godliness long enough to cause any real harm. Also, he would come back into the shape of a monkey and start a new life by the side of the trusted monkey King, Sugriva, who accepted to take Hanuman under his wing. Hanuman became a great warriors of the monkey clan. One day, he met King Ram in the forest and they became the best friends.
Ram had a wife named Sita, who was known for her beauty and heavenly qualities. Their relationship triggered the jealousy of the demon Ravana. Ravana went to war to take over Ram’s kingdom and kidnapped Sita retaining her in his island kingdom of Lanka. Ram had to conduct the battle so he asked Hanuman to rescue his wife Sita.
Hanuman knew it meant he would have to reach the coast of Lanka from India, by his own means, ignoring how he could achieve such a prowess. His devotion for Ram helped him overcome any doubts about his own capacities. Hanuman knelt down in prayer in front of the vast ocean to find the required faith and energy, and stepped down firmly to jump over the ocean.
The pression of his feet on the ground was so strong that it caused a shock wave to ripple through the land, flattening the trees and hills behind him. He was propelled into the air and could reach Lanka in the other side.
Hanuman, with his status of god, had the power to do anything, however he was not conscious of his power at the moment he jumped, as he could not remember his divinity.
This myths reminds us that we all have a part of divinity within us, allowing us to accomplish the impossible.
Halasana — Plow pose
“Isvara pranidhanad va,” which means, “When we dedicate ourselves to the divine, we become divine.”
As per the ancient legend, the King Janaka, a karma yogi (following the spiritual path of unselfish action), who cared for his people as he was caring for the lands, was working like any farmer. One day, when he was ploughing, he noticed something moving in the furrow ahead. King Janaka kneeled down, and, in wonder, discovered a beautiful baby girl from the seet that his plow had drawn in the earth. He immediately considered her as his own daughter and named her Sita, as per her birth from a seet (furrow).
Sita is the human incarnation of the deity Lakshmi Devi, who married Rama (incarnation of Lord Vishnu) and became queen beside Rama’reign. Lakshmi is deeply associated with royalty, leadership, spiritual authority, intelligence, abundance, and the transcendence of limitations.
The Yoga philosophy invites us to understand the plow as a tool to uncover hidden treasures. There is a reference to it in the fourth chapter of the Yoga Sutra:
Nimittam aprayojakam prakëtînâm varaña-bhedas tu tatah kasetrikavat (YS 4.3).
“The incidental cause does not put prakriti into motion but merely creates possibilities like a farmer breaking down barriers to irrigate his fields.“
Commentary : The transformation into this form or that is not driven by the causes proximate to it, just oriented by them, the way a farmer breaks down a barrier to let the water flow in for irrigation.
The plow pose provides an excellent opportunity to turn inward and discover hidden treasures. Using the plow as an opportunity to break up hard unyielding grounds, to dig up the soil and plant new seeds.
Garudasana — Eagle pose
Garuda, in Hindu mythology, is Vishnu’s carrier and is represented as divine bird with the head, wings, talons, and beak of an eagle and the body and limbs of a man. Garuda emerged from a huge egg, appearing as radiant as a million suns. Frightened by his power, the gods begged him to reduce himself in size and energy. Garuda symbolizes birth and heaven.
One day Garuda’s mother, Vinata, get retained as a slave in the underground city of Patala, after losing a bet with the snakes. As Garuda wanted to save his mother, he made a deal with the snakes. The serpents declared that they would release Vinata only if Garuda brought a cup of amrita (the nectar of immortality) to a celestial mountain. To convey the nectar, Garuda had to pass through three deadly obstacles.
With the amrita on hands, Garuda approached the first obstacle which was a ring of fire. Garuda extinguished the fire by pouring down a mouthful of water, grabbed from the river, flying through it easily.
The second obstacle was a circular door with a spiked metal ring that spun in its frame. Using his mystical powers, Garuda reduced in size, and flowed within.
Finally, Garuda reached the third obstacle — two venomous serpents. Garuda flapped his large wings, creating a dust storm that blinded the snakes. Then he killed them with his powerful beak.
Garuda was finally able to deliver the nectar of immortality to the snakes in the city of Patala in order to free his mother. But just as the serpents were about to consume the amrita, other gods arrived to reclaim the stolen nectar. The serpents managed to take a few drops of the amrita before it was taken from them, and the nectar was so powerful that it split their tongues in two.
The story asserts that this is the reason why snakes now have forked tongues.
The serpents released Garuda’s mother, Vinata, who promised that she will never make a bet with snakes again.
Like Garuda, every being had reduced himself in size and energy to be materialized on Earth within a physical body. Introspection give the possibility to get a glimpse of this unlimited divine potential, just as Garuda used his natural power to free his mother.
Vasisthasana — Plank pose
Vasistha was a great sage who took up the challenge of being a teacher to the King Rama, (Vishnu embodiment). Rama was deeply depressed by the state of the world, returning from some travels. Rama’s father, the King Dasharatha hoped the revered sage Vasistha would be able to help.
Vasistha was optimistic as he knew that state of mind of the young Rama was part of the spiritual path. One must first be able to be conscious of the flaws before transcending it. Vasistha saw Rama’s discomfort as an opportunity and accepted the assignment. As a good teacher, Vasistha expressed his vision to the sceptical Rama and offered him guidance to go through his emotions while letting go of what no longer served him.
The dialogue between Ram as a student and Vasistha as a teacher, is part of the Yoga Vasistha, one of the foremost texts in yoga philosophy and mythology. It is in this text that we learn about the state of the jivanmukta, the sage liberated from bondage even while living with a body. It refers to freedom from the mind’s continual resistance to recognize the divinity that lies within oneself. The magic occurs, explained Vasistha, when the individual soul merges with absolute freedom, so one can be, as the saying goes, in this world, but not of this world.
Vasistha encourages Rama in the same way the Buddha encourages us to “act as if everything you do makes a world of difference, knowing all the while that everything you do makes no difference to the world.” Yoga is full of these kinds of paradoxes. As mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita: We are entitled to the action, but not to the fruits of that action. It’s important that we never give up hope that our uplifted actions will change the world, even if it is just the world’s time to change.
Rama appeared on earth to restore dharma (the path of righteousness).
Tadasana — Mountain pose
Tadasana is a fundamental asana in the Yoga practice, that is rich in symbolism.
The Himalaya are represented by the god Himavat, who is the father of Parvati, the consort of Shiva. According to yoga philosophy, within everything there is consciousness and quality — not only in humans and animals, but also in natural phenomena like rivers, mountains, and trees.
Mountains are of crucial importance to life on earth because they are the source of the rivers, which flow toward the sea, veining the land with essential lifeblood. Rivers have always been an important aspect of spiritual life. They were regarded by the sages as symbols of samsara, the endless cycle of birth and death.
Mountains can’t be dissociated from rivers. This is the reason why Himavat is also considered as the father of Ganga Devi (goddess of the Ganges), the holiest river in India.
Bhagiratha vowed to his father Dilipa, that he will not ascend the throne until he has brought the river Ganga from heaven to Earth. This task had been passed for five generations, without succes.
Accordingly, when Dilipa passed away, Bhagiratha did not ascend the throne. Instead, he entrusted the kingdom to his ministers and went to the forest to perform penance for decades. Finally, Lord Brahma appeared before him and said, “Ask for a boon, oh king. Whatever you desire shall be granted.”
King Bhagiratha implored for Ganga to appear on Earth and thus liberate his ancestors. Brahma invited Bhagiratha to please Shiva to protect the Earth by retaining the force of Ganga. Bhagiratha prayed and Lord Shiva agreed to embrace Ganga in his matted locks of hair.
The Ganga could rises from its source in the mountains where Shiva stood. Bhagiratha led Ganga to the ashes of his 60,000 ancestors. The waters of the river flowed over the ashes and Bhagiratha’s ancestors were liberated. He could finally return to his kingdom of Ayodhya to be crowned.
When we stand in Tadasana, the head become closer to heaven, allowing the blessings to flow through the body like a river.
Leave your comments if you want to dive into other asanas !
Shiva and Pravati in the Himalayas
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