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Why Hindu Mythology Is Still Relevant in Yoga

When it comes to yoga and meditation in the West, Hindu mythology can often be polarizing among practitioners. But it doesn't have to be.

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YJ contributor Andrea Rice went behind the scenes at YJ LIVE! in NYC with mythology expert and Prana Flow yoga teacher Coral Brown to uncover ways Hindu mythology still matters in today’s world.

Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion still in practice and the third largest—with over a billion followers. Hindu mythology encompasses a tremendous body of narratives passed down since ancient Vedic times (about 1500–500 BC), though no specific date is known. But it’s important to note: Hinduism and its mythological counterpart are not entirely the same.

Since the dawn of mankind, our ancestors have used the vehicle of storytelling to try to make sense of the human condition. From Aesop’s fables to Carl Jung’s concept of archetypes and the collective unconscious, there is unlimited fascination with understanding the psyche or ego—and what makes us tick. But when it comes to yoga and meditation in the West, Hindu mythology can often be polarizing among practitioners. Some incorporate the ancient origins into their practice, while others steer clear of any signs of dogma.

Why So Many Western Yoga Teachers Avoid Mythology

At YJ LIVE! in New York, mythology expert and Prana Flow yoga teacher Coral Brown debunked the common misconception that practicing the Hindu religion and teaching its mythology are one and the same. She also demystified why these ancient teachings are still relevant today, despite spiritually watered-down mainstream approaches to practicing yoga. “The mythology is the yoga!” Brown said with enthusiasm. “We move away from it because we can’t all explain it entirely. And since we don’t have that education, we don’t teach it, because we don’t know it.”

Or, we don’t want to offend people.

Brown said that studios adorned with religious deities often alienate students and even turn them away. “Those people need white space that they can project their own images onto,” she added. But she reiterated that mythology is the essence of yoga—the concepts derived from the teachings are what make the practice what it is. Take Ganesha, for instance—the well-known elephant-headed remover of obstacles. Brown described the chubby, wise deity as the most laid-back and non-denominational, which is why he appears in studios and on home altars most frequently. The qualities of Ganesha are easy to explain in layman’s terms, but beyond that, many teachers have sterilized philosophy out of wariness of offending students.

See also Is Yoga a Religion?

Then there’s OM, of course. The sacred Sanskrit symbol and primordial sound of the universe. Despite being widely accepted, chanted, adorned, and even tattooed by innumerable mainstream yogis, it’s a safe bet that its origins are not fully understood by many practitioners. Some teachers may choose to omit OM from their practice entirely, for fear of turning students away. But, what if everyone knew that OM represents the four states of consciousness, rather than some kind of religious icon? “We’ve extracted the yoga out of yoga because we want to make it a neutral place where people can come and have their own experience,” Brown said. “So they just keep it clean and neutral, and in doing that the essence is just leaking out and getting diluted.”

Using Mythology to Teach the True Essence of Yoga

When we can view mythology as the true essence of yoga and teach philosophies that propel humanity forward with mythological principles in mind, that’s when the religious stigma starts to fade away. “Whether you call it Hanuman or talk about devotion, consistency, and loyalty, and just showing up—you can talk about the concepts without saying the name or having the imagery,” she said. In other words: You can teach mythology, without using mythological terms.

Many teachers, myself included, share the messages of yoga with students without necessarily understanding their origins. Instead, we share our experience with a practice that helped us reach our potential, and what we’ve picked up and absorbed from other teachers along the way. But by understanding even the basics of Hindu mythology, we can choose to identify the message or lesson by its Hindu name and put more of a human face on it. “It’s the iconography that represents who and what our struggles are, and those struggles are still real,” Brown said.

A show of hands in Coral’s YJ LIVE! class revealed that not a single yogi present that day knew how many Hindu gods existed. Brown joked that 108 is always a good guess, but revealed that there’s actually only one god or source with many facets. Each and every one of us represents the many faces of those deities. So whether it’s Ganesha, Lakshmi (the goddess of spiritual wealth), or Saraswati (the goddess of knowledge), when the archetype of a god or goddess resonates with you, you’re reminded of what might be missing in your life. “Yes, different stories can often lead to conflict—but that’s how we go through the fires of transformation and change,” Brown said.

See also Other YJ Experts Weigh in on Yoga as a Religion

Andrea Rice is a writer and yoga teacher. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, SONIMA, mindbodygreen, and other online publications. You can find her regular classes at shambhala yoga & dance center in Brooklyn, and connect with her on InstagramTwitter, and on her website