The Myths of Practice
“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.”
― Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
I recall a moment in one of the first yoga classes I ever took when the teacher brought us into a horrifying split and said, “Now imagine you’re Hanuman, leaping to Sri Lanka.” All I could do was roll my eyes because I had no clue what she was talking about and my eyes were the only part of my body that I could move during the attempt. It’s not that I was resistant to the mythological and spiritual origins of the practice, it was more like I was feeling clueless and impatient with being new. Nonetheless, I loved the way yoga made me feel so I just kept coming back.
Within two years I was totally hooked. I practiced as much as I could and went to every workshop I could afford. I reveled in the versatility of options and styles, attending everything from Anusara intensives to Yoga and Tarot workshops, kirtans and 5 a.m. Kundalini donation-based classes. Nothing was too practical or too “out there;” I was open to it all.
I decided I wanted to do a teacher training, but felt really timid and insecure about it. I finally got the nerve to speak up to my instructor at the time. He pointed me to Michelle Baker, who had just announced that she would be leading the first yoga teacher training in New Orleans. Michelle seemed lit up and her teaching was rich and layered and I hung on every word. I signed on without hesitation and began a journey which ultimately became the centerpiece of my life (though I had no idea at the time).
In one of the very first classes at the Swan River Yoga Shala, at the onset of my teacher training, Michelle taught us a “myth of practice,” and by that i mean a practice designed around a Hindu Myth. We came to a comfortable seat and she told us the story of Virabhadra (the origin of the warrior poses):
Uma was a beautiful goddess with an affluent father, Daksha (chief of the Gods). Marriages were arranged of course, and her father cared only about wealth and prestige, but Uma wasn’t into that. She was drawn to Siva, a wild medicant god in the mountains, with matted hair. She sought Siva’s attention but he didn’t seem to care about anything but meditating, so she joined him. She left her riches, went into the mountains and meditated. Her hair became matted and her clothes tattered and dirty representing her freedom of attachment and embodiment of Siva’s rebellious yet disciplined spirit. The gesture jilted Siva from his meditation and he immediately recognized Uma as his Shakti and was in love. Uma and Siva got married against her father’s wishes. Daksha wanted to show his disapproval so he excluded Siva from a sacred ritual to which all the devas were invited. Uma confronted her father and he scolded her and persisted in his affront on Siva, so she threw herself into the sacred fire in an act of protest. When Siva got word he went into a heart-broken rage and manifested a super-being, Virabhadra who destroyed Daksha and much of the world, which Siva would repentantly rebuild in the image of Uma’s depth and beauty.
Michelle explained that Virabhadrasana 1, 2, and 3, the first three Warrior Poses, are expressions of fierceness. The ideals embodied in these poses include the occasional necessity of defiance in the face of corruption, as well as the courageous acts we take to slay our own ego. Peaceful and humble warrior represent our efforts to balance our fierceness, and move forward with creativity and a loving heart even after a necessary destruction.
Then Michelle lead us in some Siva chants, and tears were just streaming down my face and I could not articulate what about this story spoke to me so deeply. But I took the feelings to the mat and had the most invigorating practice ever.
In hindsight, I can see that the story of rage and forbidden love breaking through social conventions and objectifying concepts of femininity spoke to deep-seated issues with my identity and sexual orientation that were making their way to the surface. Also, the representation of Siva’s humility and atonement in response to a sort of intoxicated state of destruction spoke to my struggle with addiction and commitment to recovery that was coinciding with my path to yoga. But honestly I don’t think the real value of the moment is the meanings I can articulate now or then. Great myths awaken us to the experience of life, not the meaning of it. They inspire us to action, which is why they work so well with asana. Below is another quote from Joseph Campbell, one of my favorite teachers and, during his life, one of the world’s foremost authority on myths.
“Heaven and hell are within us, and all the gods are within us. This is the great realization of the Upanishads of India. All the gods, all the heavens, all the world, are within us. They are magnified dreams, and dreams are manifestations in image form of the dynamic energies of the body. That is what myth is. Myth is a manifestation in metaphorical images, of the energies of the body in conflict with each other. This organ wants this, that organ wants that. The brain is just one of the organs.”
― Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
Hatha yoga is the practice of balancing and harmonizing these dynamic, sometimes conflicting energies, and drives within the body and mind to create a spiritual atmosphere. Similarly, the archetypal language of myth speaks to the consciousness of the whole being, not just the reasoning of the brain, so they work nicely together to get us out of our heads and into a state of action where we are receptive and present.
The relationship between asana and myth isn’t a new idea. Many of the asanas we know and love are directly named after mythological figures, but also many of our favorite myths can be embodied in asana by way of a broader focus. Below are a few of my favorite ways to approach the myths of practice:
Poses named after Sages:
-Vasisthasana and Vishvamitrasana: Both of these arm balances are named after legendary sages, one a priest, the other a king. These sages engaged in a long dispute with each other over a sacred cow. Vasistha seemed destined by birthright for high spiritual achievement. Vishvamitra wasn’t quite so blessed in this context. Even though he was a king, he didn’t have Vasistha’s spiritual advantages. When Vishvamitra transformed himself and became a man of God, even Vasistha payed homage to him. This is why Vishvamitra’s pose is more difficult than Vasistha’s because his transformation was more difficult. Difficult transformations can be explored in these poses and in other ways on the mat.
Astavakrasana: Astavakra was cursed by his father before he was born, and so he was badly deformed. When Astavakra was 12 his father was banished to the watery realm of Varuna, lord of death because he lost a debate. Astavakra made an epic journey in spite of his physical limitations to save his father. Because of Astavakra’s unsightly shape, the people at court laughed at him until he spoke and they discovered he was incredibly wise. Astavakra triumphed in a debate, winning his father’s freedom, and the people who once mocked him became his disciples. 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 because of his persistence and intelligence. We may practice these same qualities as we approach this asana mindfully.
Poses Named after Deities:
Natarajasana: Dancer pose is named after Siva’s ecstatic dance. The image of Siva dancing in the ring of fire represents, for many of us, the idea of dancing with the edge of the experience. The edge is the interface between what is known and what is beyond knowing. It is embodied in a spirit of asana practice where we are always curious and always growing. We honor the boundaries but accept the invitations, and thus our yogic progress is sustainable because it is tethered to a meditative center. I think that is Nataraj, the center of being within all the doing. When we are in natarajasana, we expand in every direction, and thus we must truly feel our center to balance.
Hanumanasana: My favorite devotional splits. Hanuman is the adored monkey god who 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 love for Sita and Ram, that he performed a mighty leap across the ocean to find her. As we approach this pose on the mat, it feels right to offer our efforts to something or someone we are devoted to.
Using Asana to Embody a Broader Mythological Focus:
Binding the boundless: When Krishna was a tot he was kind of a rascal. One day he was stealing butter and driving his mom crazy so she decided to tie him to a chair. However, when she would try there was never enough rope (she kept getting more and more). Krishna’s nature is boundless so the attempt was futile. Krishna saw his mom’s disheveled stress and so he allowed himself to be tied in an act of love. To me the story represents how the Divine takes form in the temporal world in teachers and stories so that we can relate. So we can sequence a lot of binds and speak to how binding one aspect of the being creates openness and liberation in another.
The Significance of Three: This focus delves into Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, who personify creation, preservation, and transition. The same trinity make up the three sounds of om. The sequencing can feature the many versions of Trikonasana (triangle pose), but more broadly students can consider the threefold process that occurs each time they come into a pose, hold the pose, and transition the pose. As a personal intention, students can contemplate the life-situations off the mat where they feel the most resistance (beginning, middle, or end). Offer the practice to discerning the appropriate actions.
The myths of practice are many! For some inspiration on this focus, check out Ganesha Goes to Lunch by Kamla K. Kapur. For a deeper understanding of the function of myths, see Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, which is available as a book but is also a series of interviews which can be found on YouTube or DVD. This June, let’s venture out “beyond the rim” of logical teachings, and explore the moving metaphors that enrich the experience of asana practice.
Written by Lindsey Crow