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Heroes, Saints, and Sages

Many asanas take their names from Indian mythological figures who had fantastical lives and superhuman powers. Learn their lore to infuse your practice with the extraordinary.

By Colleen Morton Busch


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.

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Reader Comments

rajendar menen

Very interesting and illuminating despite living in India!

Kat

I loved this article and it made me more conscious in my asanas of the meaning. I was much more intense and present during Virabhadrasana. Where can we find out more?? I've searched online, yet must not be using the correct words in my search. I want to know the history of the other names, it is so empowering.

Francesca Vanegas

Readers may also find inspiration about poses from the Bhagavad Gita, and the Gita's hero warrior, Arjuna.

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