Intro to Yoga Philosophy: A Wing and a Prayer

Discover the meaning behind all the birds in yoga—and how to incorporate it into your practice.

Birds are special in Hindu myth. Their ability to fly and enter the realms of heaven makes them ideal messengers of the gods. Hindu gods, unlike Christian angels, are usually wingless, so they often fly through the air on birds. It’s no wonder, then, that many yoga poses are named for these creatures. Aside from Pigeon there are Eagle, Peacock, Swan, Crane, Heron, Rooster, and Partridge.

The swan is the vehicle of the creator god Brahma. Her name (hamsa, more accurately rendered as “wild goose”) conceals a profound teaching in the powerful mantra, soham, which translates as “This am I.”

What does this cryptic mantra mean? It acknowledges the aspiration to merge the individual self (aham in Sanskrit ) with the universal, cosmic Self (so in Sanskrit).

Amazingly, this little mantra sums up the basic message of the Upanishads (the collection of ancient Hindu texts that form the basis of India’s most influential philosophy, Vedanta): All the seemingly disparate selves of the world are ultimately only one big Self, which is the essence of everything that exists.

Tradition says that at a certain stage of practicing this mantra, you will experience this oneness and the syllables will naturally reverse to ham sa (the swan). At that point you become the paramahamsa, or supreme swan, who soars where mortals can never go. Meditative attention to your breath, then, can serve as a vehicle for your own deliverance.

Practice a swan song

Find a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down, and turn your
attention to your breath. Listen carefully for a while. On the inhalation, you’ll hear a sibilant sa sound, on the exhalation an aspirate ha.

Spend a few minutes following these sounds. You can arrange and interpret the syllables two ways: as hamsa, where your breath is your bird mount soaring to the heavens, or as soham, where it’s a bridge joining the self (jiva-atman) with the Self (parama-atman).

Contributing Editor Richard Rosen is deputy director of the Yoga Research and Education Center in Sebastopol, California, and teaches public classes in Berkeley and Oakland, CA.