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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

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.

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Reader Comments

rajendar menen

Very interesting and illuminating despite living in India!


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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