Heroes, Saints, and SagesAs 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."
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.