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The Myths Of The Asanas

Because so many asana are named for objects found in the nature (tree, frog, half moon), I couldn’t help but think that by taking the shape of what occurs in the natural world is a way for us to connect to the rhythms and cycles of the universe. Then I discovered Alanna Kaivalya’s book, Myths of the Asanas: The Stories at the Heart of the Yoga Tradition, co-written with Arjuna van der Kooij.

I called Kaivalya, who teaches at Pure Yoga, and it turns out that she believes the same thing. “The myths speak to our subconscious and that suddenly makes asana not just a physical but a psychological, emotional, and physical practice that reaches back deeper than physical exercise because it connects us to something larger than ourselves.”

I remember a few weeks after I first started practicing when I lost myself in Surya Namaskar. My normally chatty mind was surprisingly silent. I had no idea what time it was or how long I had forgotten about time. I even forgot I was in a room with 25 other people. My eyes had closed and I was somewhere inside. I felt larger, an expanded version of myself. My internal world was bigger than my external world. And the asana, or in my case, the Vinyasa was the door. So I started going to class every day.

Though this moment of mine was private, I know from talking to other yogis, that many of us have deep personal experiences in yoga class. Kaivalya believes group yoga classes are popular because moving in sync with others creates a sense of community, if only for an hour and a half. And it is this structure that creates a safe and sacred space. If we look at nature, we find community—animals move in packs and herds and there are symbiotic relationships between plants and insects. So moving together reminds us that we are not alone, and not only are we not alone, we are more like nature rather than separate from it. In fact, our separateness is an illusion.

While I was falling in love with yoga without really knowing why, Kaivalya turned to Hindu mythology to investigate what she was feeling on the mat---a deeper sense of self which she describes as love. There’s the myth of Hanuman who like us, forgets his divinity, and not until he humbles himself in Anjaneyasana, is he able to leap from India to Lanka not once, but twice. This leap is symbolized in the pose Hanumanasana (full split). The first leap is to get herbs to heal lord Rama. The next time is to help Rama rescue Sita who had been captured by Ravana.

The pose isn’t easy. In fact it is tough for most. But practicing it reminds us that through love, we forget our small ego aches and pains and remember that things we never thought possible could be achieved. So even if physically we never make it to a full split, there is the story behind the pose to inspire our attempt.

You don’t need to do “crazy” poses to feel connected to the mythology. When you stand in Tadasana, you are physically taking the shape of the mountain---the place where yogis and sages went to find solitude, strength, and stability. As Kaivalya explains in her book, the mountains are crucial to life on earth because they are the source of rivers, so standing in mountain pose is a way to connect to life-source or prana.

To get to the mountains, the ancient yogis had to walk through the forest, the shade of a tree was the best place for a student to receive spiritual teachings. Trees symbolize stability because they flow with the changes of each season. Every year they move through the cycles of life.

According to Sri Chaitanya, the dancing saint from Bengal, tree pose is the perfect place to meditate on tolerance because it is so clearly about non-attachment in relationship to the seasons and is able to offer shade to anyone, even the wood-cutter who may chop the tree down. Thus free of the cycles of attachment and aversion Vrksasana offers us the chance to practice the art of physical and spiritual balance.

When I’m balancing on one leg either I'm hopping up and down, laughing and trying to find an elusive balance or, my own internal narrative ceases. I’m focused and clear; breathing slowly into something larger than myself. Either way, the asana reminds me, it’s time to listen and let the story with a capital S unfold.

-- Carly Sachs

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