The Heroes, Saints, and Sages Behind Yoga Pose Names


By Colleen Morton Busch  |  

As a train hurtles down a track severed by an earthquake, our hero lays his body across the gap and saves the passengers from certain death. When the woman he loves is buried in her car, he spins the earth to turn back time and come to her rescue. He is Superman, transformed from his nerdy alter ego, Clark Kent, into a handsome and outrageously capable superbeing—endowed with extraordinary strength and godlike powers, called upon to protect truth and innocence, and, of course, committed to triumphing over evil.

When we’re children, our imagination is held captive by such larger-than-life figures. As we grow older, however, mythic stories often lose their pull on us. We become so rooted in the mundane and prosaic that our connection with archetypal figures like brave heroes and clever princesses often fades. Thankfully, yoga practice invites us back into a realm of feeling and imagination, a realm where superhuman figures can come alive. Hidden behind the tongue-twisting names of many of the asanas we practice are stories of wild and woolly Indian superheroes able to change shape, read minds, and leap vast distances in a single bound.

If we’d grown up in India, these heroes, saints, and sages might be as familiar to us as Superman. But most Western yoga practitioners weren’t raised on tales from Indian classics like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Puranas. For us, learning about these legendary heroes can provide new insights into the deeper dimensions of yoga, a practice that is ultimately concerned with much more than assuming the forms of the asanas. As Kausthub Desikachar, grandson of revered Indian yoga master T.K.V. Krishnamacharya, puts it: “By meditating on these characters, we hope that we might come to embody some of their attributes.”

Virabhadra

The next time your thighs are turning to Jell-O in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II)—or anytime life demands a great deal of you—you might want to invoke the spirit of the great warrior for whom this pose is named.

A son of Lord Shiva (the Destroyer, considered the most powerful god of the Hindu pantheon), Virabhadra was born of unbearable suffering. After Shiva’s wife Sati was killed, Shiva tore out his hair in grief; from his locks, Virabhadra and the fierce goddess Kali were born. Shiva then made them commanders of the legions he sent to avenge Sati’s death. But, according to Rama Jyoti Vernon, president of the American Yoga College (based in Walnut Creek, California), Virabhadra and Kali aren’t simply bloody warriors. Like Shiva, they destroy to save: Their real enemy is the ego. “By cutting off the head of the ego,” Vernon says, “Virabhadra and Kali help remind us to humble ourselves.”

When we practice one of the three versions of Virabhadrasana, Vernon notes, we cultivate the mind of the warrior, who must go into battle unattached to the fruits of his actions—one who has 360-degree vision and can see all things. “You look to all sides in the poses, but you try to hold to your center and not be pulled every which way,” she says. “Virabhadrasana teaches us to go into the field of life and stay in the center of our being.” If you can imagine yourself as a fearless warrior sent on a divine mission, you just might find renewed strength and vigor in the poses as well as the courage and determination to face life’s challenging moments.
Vasistha & Vishvamitra

It’s not difficult to see the connection between the poses Vasisthasana and Vishvamitrasana and the attributes of the legendary sages—one a priest, the other a king—for whom the asanas are named. Both poses are advanced arm balances, but Vasisthasana (Side Plank) is particularly sattvic, or “pure”—it has a buoyant, mind-clearing quality—while Vishvamitrasana is distinctly driven and rajasic, or “fiery.” The latter is an intense pose that requires a dramatic hip opening and a firm sense of purpose.

The sattvic and rajasic qualities are embodied in the two sages, who engaged in a long battle with each other over a magical, wish-fulfilling cow named Nandini. As in many ancient Indian tales, the very human motives evident in this story—competition and greed—sit atop layers of spiritual symbolism.

Here we find the dynamic tension in spiritual life between effortless grace and determined practice. Vasistha embodies the grace that comes with spiritual attainment and contentment: A divine son of the god Brahma and a member of the priestly caste at the top of the Indian social hierarchy, Vasistha seemed destined by birthright for high spiritual achievement—and goodies like his magic cow.

Vishvamitra wasn’t quite so blessed. Even though he was a king, a member of the Kshatriya warrior caste that was second only to the priestly Brahmins, he didn’t have Vasistha’s earthly or spiritual advantages. “Having been born a Kshatriya,” says Kofi Busia, a senior Iyengar Yoga teacher who studied Sanskrit and Indian mythology at Oxford, “Vishvamitra had little initial hope for the highest achievements in the spiritual realm.”

But like most Indian sages, Vishvamitra was strong-willed. First, he tried to seize Nandini by force. No matter how he tried, this approach failed. As the conflict continued, both sages demonstrated the spiritual achievements for which they’re still renowned. Vasistha displayed his tolerance and mastery of the emotions; even though Vishvamitra and his warriors are said to have slain a hundred of Vasistha’s sons, the Brahmin remained calm and was never vengeful.

During the course of the battle, the king Vishvamitra eventually came to desire not just a wish-fulfilling cow but spiritual strength. He set out to become a Brahmin and, after many penances and austerities, succeeded. In fact, says Aadil Palkhivala, student of B.K.S. Iyengar since the age of seven and a YJ editorial adviser, “when Vishvamitra transformed himself and became a man of God, even Vasistha came to pay homage to him. This is why Vishvamitra’s pose is more difficult than Vasistha’s: His sadhana [spiritual practice] was more difficult.”

Astavakra

Fathers have never much liked being outsmarted by their offspring. In most cultures, any evidence of a son’s arrogance can get the son into deep trouble with his father. Astavakra’s tale contains classic elements of the intergenerational tensions that show up even—or perhaps especially—in the realm of religion and spiritual practice.

What makes Astavakra remarkable is that he crossed the line with his father, and was punished, before he even left the womb. While still in his mother’s belly, he corrected his father’s recitation of verses from the Rig Veda, a collection of India’s oldest and most sacred hymns. Enraged, Astavakra’s father cursed him, and the boy was born deformed. Astavakra’s name refers to the eight (asta) crooked (vakra) angles of his limbs; the many angles of the pose Astavakrasana evoke the curse of crooked limbs that Astavakra triumphed over by dint of his persistence, piety, and intelligence.
Despite his father’s cruel curse, Astavakra remained a faithful son. When the boy was 12, his father lost a priestly debate and was banished to the watery realm of Varuna, lord of death. Although the journey required a monumental effort, Astavakra traveled to the king’s court to challenge the man who had bested his father. Because of Astavakra’s unsightly shape, the people at court laughed at him—but only until he opened his mouth and they discovered he was incredibly learned and deeply insightful, even though he was still just a boy. Astavakra triumphed in the debate, winning his father’s freedom, and people who once mocked him became his disciples, including the king.

Astavakra’s story illustrates the human tendency to judge things by their appearance rather than by their true substance. It is also a reminder of the power of steadfast faith to triumph over ridicule and misunderstanding. According to yoga teacher Aadil Palkhivala, “Astavakrasana appears to be very difficult, but actually, it’s one of the easiest of arm balances if you just know the technique. What the pose is trying to tell us is that even when things seem extremely convoluted, if you just know how to arrange them, your situation is not as arduous as it looks.” While some poses are designed to make us work hard, others, like Astavakrasana, are actually designed to teach us to work less. “This asana requires more knowledge than effort,” Palkhivala says. “It is not a fighting pose; the primary feeling in it is a sense of freedom.”

Hanuman
The monkey god, Hanuman, is revered throughout India. As the Ramayana recounts, he demonstrated his devotion to King Rama by searching the world for Rama’s beloved wife Sita, who had been kidnapped. So great was Hanuman’s desire to serve his master that he performed a mighty leap across the ocean to find her.

The pose named for Hanuman—sitting on the floor in a full front-to-back split—is a challenging one. Open hamstrings, quadriceps, and psoas muscles help a student progress in the pose, but it’s the qualities embodied by Hanuman that serve us most—not only in the pose but also beyond it: purity of motive, the conviction to unite what has been made separate, and the zeal to rise to any challenge.

According to Aadil Palkhivala, Hanuman stands for the ability to fly—thanks to the intensity of our devotion—whereas before, we could only walk. “Hanumanasana reminds us that we can free ourselves of our small stride, our narrowness, our petty circumstances,” he says.
Goraksha & Matsyendra

Just as Plato and his protégé Aristotle are celebrated as wellsprings of Western philosophy, teacher Matsyendra and his student Goraksha are revered as founders of hatha yoga. It’s fitting that Matsyendrasana (Lord of the Fishes Pose) is a spinal twist. “Twisting poses symbolize revolving the front body, or what is conscious, to the back body, the subconscious,” American Yoga College’s Rama Jyoti Vernon says. “They bring light into darkness and the dark to light, a process essential to yoga.” It’s easy to imagine the first hatha yogis discovering these physical forms as they experimented with purifying the body to liberate the mind.

Matsyendra appears to have been an actual historical person, not just a figure of myth. Born in Bengal around the 10th century c.e., he is venerated by Buddhists in Nepal as an incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. As with most Indian myths, there are many versions of the story of Matsyendra’s metamorphosis into a realized adept—and all of them illustrate the radical transformation that yoga makes possible.

In one popular version, the infant Matsyendra is thrown into the ocean because his birth has occurred under inauspicious planets. Swallowed by a giant fish, he overhears Shiva teaching the mysteries of yoga to his consort Parvati in their secret lair at the bottom of the ocean. Matsyendra is spellbound. After spending 12 years in the fish’s belly, all the while exploring yoga’s esoteric practices, he emerges as an enlightened master.

Matsyendrasana is one of the few asanas described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 14th-century text, and the deep twist is familiar to most Western yoga practitioners today. Fewer Western yogis are likely to practice Gorakshasana, a difficult balance in which the practitioner stands on his knees in Lotus Pose. But in yogic lore, Goraksha is often considered the more influential of the two adepts.

Matsyendra’s chief disciple, Goraksha reputedly came from a low caste but at a young age devoted his life to renunciation and teaching. The story of his birth exemplifies his humble beginnings and may explain his devotion to his teacher. According to legend, Goraksha’s mother—a peasant woman—prayed to Shiva for a son, and the god gave her magical ashes to eat that would enable her to become pregnant. She failed to understand the boon, however, and threw the ashes on a dung heap. Twelve years later, Matsyendra heard of the promised child and visited the woman. When she confessed she’d thrown the ashes away, Matsyendra insisted she revisit the dung heap—and there was 12-year-old Goraksha.

Goraksha came to be known as a miracle-working yogi who used his magical powers to benefit his guru. At one point, he assumed a female form to enter a king’s harem and rescue Matsyendra after the teacher had fallen in love with a queen and gotten sidetracked from his spiritual life.

Goraksha’s name means “cow protector” and may just refer to his humble beginnings. But in India, the light of consciousness is thought to be embodied in cows—even those that can’t magically fulfill wishes. As with Matsyendra, “Goraksha” may not be simply a name but rather a title honoring the yogi’s spiritual attainments.

“Metaphorically, Goraksha’s story says that when something in life doesn’t look like what we want, we often cast it aside. But in the most discarded thing can be hidden the greatest blessing,” Vernon says. And, as with the tale of Matsyendra, Goraksha’s life story underscores our potential to awaken despite all sorts of obstacles.
Colleen Morton Busch is a former YJ senior editor.