Yoga is a spiritual body language from India. It is a moving liturgy. It was developed as a spiritual practice to unite with the Hindu divine and as a religious rite to worship the Hindu divine. Many of its poses and sequences of poses are inspired by Hindu mythology. Its active poses are devotion in motion, the embodied veneration of figures from sacred Hindu literature. Its passive poses are physical philosophy, the bodily expression of non-dual Oneness philosophy. Active poses represent certain Hindu gods, creature beings, and sages after which the poses are named and patterned and to which they have been dedicated. The practice of such poses is a type of role playing of another spirit being, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Passive meditation poses represent the Hindu Supreme Reality, or Brahman, which is cosmic consciousness. The practice of such poses identifies a person with the Hindu Supreme. Yoga poses send messages to the spirit world, attracting spirits of Hinduism.
“But,” a practitioner may protest, “I don’t know about that, and I don’t believe in that anyway.” Granted. Suppose a practitioner does not “speak” the language of yoga. She may not understand it, or perhaps she understands but disapproves. Does her lack of understanding or disapproval negate the message? No. As far as the spirit world is concerned, it is better that she not understand the language of yoga: her ignorance prevents her from objecting and resisting. As for her disapproving the original meaning and purpose of yoga, her disapproval does not matter as long as she practices. The message of yoga remains intact, and communication or communion with the spirit world proceeds. How so?
Consider the consequence of learning how to curse in a language you don’t understand but only parrot. Your cursing may cause native speakers of that language to react negatively: to cringe, scowl, chastise or avoid you. Likewise, your praising in an unknown language may cause native speakers of that language to respond favorably: to smile or draw near. And if you call a person’s name—though the name may be foreign to you and difficult to pronounce—the person whose name you call will snap to attention and even answer when called. Just so, when you perform the body language of yoga, spirits associated with yoga respond to the call and the praise. Just as language has invocatory power, so too, body language has invocatory power, as any round of flirting or flipping-off proves. Yoga is a full body “come here” signal; it is a full body “I adore and I implore” signal. Those who are honored by poses named after them and dedicated to them and shaped after them show up to a performance in their honor.
Yoga poses are spiritual by virtue of their form and function. All poses can be organized into several thematic categories:
- poses named and fashioned after Hindu gods and other legendary, superhuman figures featured in sacred Hindu action/adventure texts such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Puranas1;
- creature and creation poses modeled after divine mammals, birds, reptiles, and other objects in nature; and
- meditation poses.
The attitude of Hindus and New Agers toward deity, creature, and creation poses ranges from admiration to adoration to absorption. Their spiritual goals in practicing yoga poses likewise range from acquiring the attributes exemplified by the figure or credited to the figure (in some cases, there is no evidence that the figure demonstrates the virtues ascribed to it), to hallowing the figure, to becoming the figure. This progression follows the process of meditation on an object: meditation begins with two—the meditator and her object of meditation, moves toward commingling, and ends with one—the disappearance of the meditator into the object and the manifestation of the object through the meditator. The process is a bit like acquisition and merger—a takeover and possession, if you will.
Unlike creature and creation poses, meditation poses are aimed at nothing; they are aimed at effacing creature and creation, including the meditator, since all creation is illusory in Hinduism. Even Hindu deities like Shiva have limited life spans (surprise!)—albeit eons—and are transitory compared to the Hindu Supreme Reality, Brahman, whose sacred sound signature is “Om”. One prominent treatise on yoga, the Yoga Sutras (250 CE), opens with this dedication to Brahman or “Om”: “Invocation of the Supreme Deity: My homage to that Being who is […] free from the ME-feeling, […] the metempiric Self [metempiric = beyond or outside the field of experience]: Om! Om! Om! (God)”.2 Seated meditation poses are especially designed to facilitate prolonged focus on the Supreme. For instance, one classic yoga manual says that by “sitting in padmasana [lotus pose]” the practitioner “becomes liberated” from creation, a euphemism for self-extinction (Shiva Samhita 3.107).3 But even active or acrobatic poses may be entered and exited as a moving meditation on the Supreme. Modern yoga presents active poses as a moving meditation, while more traditional forms of yoga also reserve time for meditation in static seated positions.
Of the 200 poses listed in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga (1966), the landmark book that popularized yoga in the West, 33 poses are named after Hindu deities, children of deities, demigods, sages, and other mythological or legendary figures, a category of poses that is overtly religious, embodying the veneration or adoration of Hindu beings represented by the poses and invoking the qualities or spirits of those beings. Poses named after animals (22 in Iyengar’s catalog), birds (17), and natural objects such as a mountain and tree (23) might seem neutral to westerners, but they assume totemic significance in yoga: shaping oneself into an animal or object in nature identifies the practitioner with that entity for the purpose of endowing the practitioner with the spiritual power and desired qualities associated with that entity as, for example, the immovable stability of a mountain, the flexible stability of a tree, or the fierceness of a lion. Poses named after meditation positions (3 in Iyengar’s catalog) and states of mind (11) are similarly overtly religious: they represent transcendent states of consciousness and are designed to induce those states.4
Just how important or relevant is it to know that many poses are named after, modeled after, and dedicated to Hindu deities, children of deities, sages, and other mythological or legendary Hindu characters? Obviously, purposeful veneration and adoration of mythological beings requires knowledge of myth, meditative focus, and devotional intent, which not everybody has. Does lack of knowledge, lack of meditative focus, and lack of devotional intent protect the practitioner from unwanted influences? No. What most practitioners do not realize is that involuntary veneration and worship do occur. At the most basic level of participation in yoga, which is uninformed practice and ignorance of the meaning of poses that panegyrize mythological beings, the veneration and adoration of mythological beings is unintended but nonetheless real since practicing yoga constitutes ritual worship in the spirit realm.
Stolen obeisance is still obeisance to spirits who benefit from obeisance. Spirits do not require informed consent because they do not honor human will the way God does. They are glad that pagan worship inherent in yoga is obscured as something beneficial and desirable: as exercise, a health and beauty regimen, and a performing art. But ignorance is never a defense, for spirits exploit ignorance; nor is unwillingness a defense if we participate; our participation sufficiently engages our will. We may say “no” to Hinduism in our minds, or “I’m not responsible for what I don’t know,” or “I could care less,” but we say “yes, I’m interested; yes, I’m invested” with our bodies. What we do is more important than what we think. Doing yoga constitutes informed consent. The act of striking poses expresses willingness to receive all that yoga is and gives spirits of yoga a license to operate in our lives. A practitioner who strikes a Hindu deity pose entertains the figure it represents and potentially courts any spirit attracted to it.
The practice of yoga poses as an art of spiritual shape-shifting to bond with any number of beings and ultimately to host a universal Oversoul is a religious view that all gurus of modern yoga have held, though they have downplayed or suppressed it to secure a global, religiously diverse clientele. B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-2014), the yoga guru who is perhaps singly the most responsible for popularizing and mainstreaming yoga in modern times, certainly believed that the practitioner’s “body is a mere container” and that through yoga poses a practitioner vests himself in a multiplicity of forms in order to appreciate the essential equality of them all and to identify with the formless that animates them all. In his yoga pose instruction, Iyengar liberally alluded to Hindu mythology: “his discourse of yoga and self-presentation as a yoga guru [were] thoroughly permeated by references to classical religious narrative”.5
Iyengar’s book, Light on Yoga (1966), clearly presents the pose system as embedded in and expressive of Hindu spiritual concepts, including metaphysical concepts of spiritual energy in the body (prana, kundalini) and esoteric physiology of the body (nadis, chakras). Iyengar casts the pose system as divine action instrumental to and implemental of Hindu spiritual goals, including communion with the “Universal Spirit” and fixity on the “Formless”. Below is an excerpt from his introduction in which he explains the significance of the pose system. Definitions of Hindu terms are taken from Iyengar’s own glossary and inserted in brackets; Sanskrit translations of pose names are omitted:
The names of the asanas [postures] are significant […]. Some are named after vegetation like the tree and the lotus; some after insects like the locust and the scorpion; some after aquatic animals and amphibians like the fish, the tortoise, the frog or the crocodile. There are asanas called after birds like the cock, the heron, the peacock, and the swan. They are also named after quadrupeds like the dog, the horse, the camel and the lion. Creatures that crawl like the serpent are not forgotten, nor is the human embryonic state overlooked. Asanas are named after legendary heroes […]. Sages […] are remembered by having asanas named after them. Some asanas are also called after gods of the Hindu pantheon and some recall the Avataras, or incarnations of Divine Power [avataras: descent, advent or incarnation of God; there are ten avatars of Vishnu]. Whilst performing asanas the yogi’s body assumes many forms resembling a variety of creatures. His mind is trained not to despise any creature, for he knows that throughout the whole gamut of creation, from the lowliest insect to the most perfect sage, there breathes the same Universal Spirit, which assumes innumerable forms. He knows that the highest form is that of the Formless. He finds unity in universality. True asana [yoga pose] is that in which the thought of Brahman [the Supreme Being, the cause of the universe, the all-pervading spirit of the universe] flows effortlessly and incessantly through the mind of the sadhaka [seeker, aspirant].6
In the foregoing quote, Iyengar outlines the plain purpose of yoga poses as follows:
- to commemorate and celebrate the heroes, sages, gods, and avatars of Hindu mythology as recounted in Hindu sacred literature;
- to honor the Universal Spirit in its multiplicity of forms by fashioning oneself into a facsimile of the form of diverse creatures or created beings; and
- to disintegrate the personal into the fathomless Formless or Brahman, the Hindu Supreme Reality.
In this chapter, we will study poses that commemorate and celebrate Hindu heroes, sages, gods, and avatars of Hindu mythology.
Poses Named after Hindu Gods, Demigods, and Other Mythological Beings
While it is not this author’s intention to perpetuate Hindu myth or for that matter, the bizarre and appalling (as myths often tend to be), examples are necessary to illustrate the spiritual significance of mythologically based poses. Hindus and New Agers rarely interpret a myth as the facts warrant, but put a positive spin on the facts and find something laudable to emulate in dubious cases where there is hardly a rational basis for a positive interpretation. Most myths make suitable tabloid material, and by Abrahamic standards, the behavior of many mythological beings is objectionable, not laudable. One might well ask why yogis bother venerating or worshiping gods, demigods, and sages who behave like us on our worst days or perhaps even worse than us; the reason is always the Infinite “clothed in human form”: they may not act like god, but deep down they are, and deep down we are, too, according to Hinduism. The Jivamukti yoga teacher, Kaivalya, says that we can better identify and empathize with characters who have moral defects: “Each of the characters in the myths displays human flaws, which makes them easy to relate to”.7 The question remains why we would want to identify with or emulate or posture ourselves after someone who is morally defective. It seems that holiness is not an imperative in Hinduism the way it is in Judaism and Christianity.
Before recounting myths, one qualifier is in order. Variations of Hindu myths abound, making accuracy impossible. The versions that follow are not definitive accounts but are meant to give the reader an understanding of the general tenor of Hindu myth. Also, myths tend to be convoluted and protracted; the accounts below are excerpts that hopefully will not overly agonize or antagonize the reader. Let’s examine a few deities celebrated in deity poses.
King Dancer Pose / Natarajasana
The most important of the deity poses—presupposing that rank ordering of deities is admissible or even meaningful—is king dancer, also known as lord of the dance or dancing Shiva pose. King dancer is a standing one legged balance with one hand holding the shin of the same sided leg extended backward. The pose is dedicated to Shiva, one of the oldest deities in the Hindu pantheon, likely a composite of several Rigvedic deities, including Rudra. Shiva is the patron deity of yoga and the arts; the first yogi and guru (yoga practitioner and teacher), who is paradoxically a god of destruction and tranquility, and whose mythos, symbols, and rites unmistakably suggest a sex and death cult. Shiva’s destructive power is euphemistically described as transformational, but this means the loss of form and substance in the same way that fire denatures what it burns. In Hinduism, Shiva is one of a triumvirate of three gods—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—who have separate functions as creator, preserver, and destroyer, respectively. However, in Shaivism, the Hindu sect of Shiva worship, Shiva subsumes and supplants his peers and even assumes attributes of the Absolute, for Shaivites worship Shiva as “All and in all, the creator, preserver, destroyer, revealer and concealer of all that is”.8
The most prevalent representation of Shiva in Hindu iconography is a classic dance called the bhujungatrasa or “trembling of the snake,” which depicts him with a double set of arms dancing on and trampling underfoot the dwarf of human ignorance and unmindfulness. One of Shiva’s hands emanates fire with which he resorbs the universe; one foot is planted on the ground, representing embodied existence; the other foot is raised in midair, representing release from embodied existence. In the famous Nataraja sculpture that adorns most yoga studios, Shiva is postured in this way and encircled by a ring of fire symbolizing doomsday; his doomsday dance “accompanies the dissolution of the universe”.9 In one cosmological account (Hinduism is overgrown with a tangle of accounts), Shiva’s violent dance (tandava) generates all movement in the universe and is the impetus for and momentum in the cycle of creation, preservation, and destruction, which are different manifestations of cosmic primal energy.10
Yoga falls squarely within Shiva’s jurisdiction or cosmic scope of practice as a moving meditation, movement that prepares one for seated meditation, and seated meditation. Yoga is the special domain of Shiva, and Shiva is the presiding deity over yoga.11 A practitioner of yoga primarily honors Shiva, whose practice it is, and secondarily honors other deities through other poses or pose sequences. In striking king dancer pose, the practitioner pays special tribute to Shiva.
Split Pose / Hanuman’s Pose / Hanumanasana
Another deity pose is the front-to-back split named after Hanuman, the monkey god. Hanuman is the most popular deity in India, and the god of physical culture and wrestling. Like yoga, wrestling is a spiritual discipline in India. Its calisthenic regimen overlaps with yoga to some extent, sharing certain poses and movements, including headstand, low plank (the bottom of a pushup), and the Sun Salute sequence. Yoga scholars are uncertain whether yoga appropriated moves from wrestling or wrestling appropriated moves from yoga or both.12 In any case, as the god of physical culture, Hanuman casts a shadow of influence over yoga.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the home of Hanuman, Kishkindha, which is the setting for the monkey kingdom in the epic Ramayana, is Koppal, Karnataka, the same district and the same state as the home of the influential yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar. Iyengar was a devotee of Hanuman, as well as of Vishnu, the preserver god, and of Patanjali, the deified sage who authored the Yoga Sutras and who is depicted in mythology as a hybrid man-snake. On his private yoga studio altar, Iyengar offered ritual worship (puja) to Hanuman and other deities, exemplifying the Hindu and yogic bias toward spiritual eclecticism. In case the reader considers this account of Iyengar’s spiritual orientation a bit overblown, two veteran yoga practitioners who knew Iyengar personally for years, one of whom directs the committee that certifies Iyengar Yoga teachers, and the other of whom is an eminent Sanskrit scholar and professor of classic Indian religions, concur that Iyengar’s “iconic status as the monkey deity Hanuman” was “impossible to miss” and permeated “his yoga teachings and persona as a guru.13 What does this suggest? That the spirit behind the Hindu monkey deity has influence over the practice of yoga, though not as much as Shiva.
As mythological figures go, Hanuman is noble, renowned for his militant devotional service to King Rama, a human incarnation of the preserver god Vishnu, whose tale is told in the Ramayana epic. Nevertheless, the details of Hanuman’s adventures are strange in the occult sense, and his heroic prowess includes the occult yogic powers of flying (akasa, literally “passage through the sky secured”; Yoga Sutras 3.42), minifying or shrinking himself (anima; YS 3.45), maximizing or enlarging himself (mahima; YS 3.45), supernatural speed (YS 3.48), and supernatural strength (YS 3.24), as for example, to slay a slew of demons, compress a mountain, and transport a mountain. The split pose is named after a flying split-leap he took from the southern coast of India over the sea to an island (not Sri Lanka) during a rescue mission.14 Because of his heroic feats involving supernatural strength, Hanuman is the presiding Hindu deity over physical culture and wrestling, and he features prominently among all “who prioritize physical culture,” including yoga practitioners.15
The common form of the pose, which is shared by western performing arts such as ballet and gymnastics, raises an important question: Is the split necessarily a yogic pose? The split has a unique history in the West independent of its Indian history and is best categorized as transnational. It would not be categorically prohibited for Jews and Christians, but its neutrality depends on context. If performed in a yoga class, the split takes on yogic meaning and comes under the auspices of deities presiding over yoga, along with spiritual attachments. If performed as revamped yoga dedicated to YHWH at a synagogue or Jewish community center or to Jesus at a Christian church or YMCA, the spiritual content is mixed and still comes with Hindu attachments since the spirit realm attends to its possessions. To be truly neutral or non-Hindu, the pose would have to be performed in a western context with no hint of hybridization. (The issues of mixture and crossover poses are discussed in other chapters.) Transnational poses retain their neutrality only if performed in a neutral context. A neutral context precludes synthesis, as for example, any innovations that fuse yoga with dance or fitness or other movement arts.
Warrior 1, 2, 3 / Virabhadra’s Poses / Virabhadrasana 1, 2, 3
Some poses celebrate children of deities: among them, Virabhadra, Marichi, and Vasistha. Two yogic lunges (warrior 1 and 2) and one standing balance (warrior 3) are collectively named and fashioned after and dedicated to Virabhadra, the son/avatar or incarnation of Shiva, the Hindu destroyer god. Warrior 1 is a forward lunge with the back foot fully grounded and inverted and the arms raised overhead. Warrior 2 is a side lunge with the same rear foot position and the arms raised sideways. Warrior 3 is a T-shaped, one legged balance with the torso and back leg extended in a plane parallel to the ground. The warrior series is a new feature of modern yoga of the early 20th century; the series is not found in the classic pose repertoire of the 15th through 17th centuries. In fact, the classic pose repertoire contains few standing poses and no lunges. Of all the pose categories—sitting, supine, prone, inverted, hand balancing, and standing—standing is the only category deficient in poses in pre-modern yoga texts. How then did modern yoga acquire these standing lunges?
Scholars speculate that the warrior series may have been adopted and adapted from Indian martial arts, and particularly sword fighting, which involves lunging movements coordinated with sword thrusts,16 or alternatively from Danish gymnastics, and particularly, the vigorous Primary Gymnastics (1925) system of Niels Bukh (1880-1950), which was extremely popular in Europe and British Colonial India and became “a standard choice for children’s physical culture” by the mid 1930s, the exact period when the grandfather of modern yoga, Krishnamacharya, was developing his yoga system and innovating by experimenting on his disciples, including the modern yoga gurus B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois.17 Both Danish gymnastics and Indian martial arts employ lunges similar to the warrior 1 and 2 with the back foot fully planted and the torso vertically erect. Warrior 3 is more likely to have been derived from European physical culture since “standing postures in which the spine is more parallel (rather than perpendicular) to the ground” are characteristic of western movement arts.18 If this hypothesis is true, the incorporation of strictly secular, standing lunges from the West into the yoga system spoiled the spiritual neutrality of these lunges in a context of yoga because the poses were named after and offered to a Hindu deity and were harnessed for the yogic purpose of sublimation of spiritual energy and enlightenment.
The myth behind the warrior poses features a family feud: Virabhadra was born out of a matted lock that Shiva ripped off his scalp and flung in fury after his wife Sita committed suicide by casting herself into fire (self-immolation) rather than endure her father’s insults about Shiva at a party (her disapproving father happened to be Shiva’s jealous brother). Shiva’s lock of hair that morphed into the warrior Virabhadra became Shiva’s rage personified and the executioner of Shiva’s wrath against his brother. Virabhadra crashed the party like a cyclone, swords shearing in all directions to slash the offending foe. Warrior 1 enacts Virabhadra erupting from the ground; warrior 2 enacts him spying out the offending brother like a scope; and warrior 3 enacts him beheading the brother, which head he lobbed into the fire, thereby lopping the length of the party, too. Guests who tried to intercept to save their host were also dispatched. Mission complete, Virabadhra merged back into Shiva.19
Yogis tend to spiritualize the meaning of yoga poses that are anchored in myth, and the warrior series is no exception. The President of the American Yoga College, Rama Jyoti Vernon, explains that “bloody warriors” like Virabadhra and Shiva “destroy to save: their real enemy is the ego”. The myth does not support this interpretation at all. Virabadhra and Shiva do not demonstrate the egoless option. On the contrary, they express rage at personal loss, a rage that inflames a violent act of retribution that keeps the wheel of karma—actions and their consequences—spinning, according to Hindu philosophy. Yet Vernon re-interprets the myth about the obnoxious father, the overreactive daughter, the outraged brother, and his assassin son according to principles of karma yoga or non-attachment to outcomes, propounded in the Bhagavad Gita: “When we practice [warriors 1, 2, and 3], we cultivate the mind of a warrior who must go into battle unattached to the fruits of his actions.” Virabadhra and Shiva were hardly dispassionate about their murder rampage; they were fully invested in it and relished the fruit of poetic justice. The Yoga Journal journalist who interviewed Vernon also spiritualizes this myth, recommending calling on the spirit of Virabadhra for stamina in yoga class and steeliness in life’s trials: “The next time your thighs are turning to Jell-O […] or anytime life demands a great deal of you—you might want to invoke the spirit of the great warrior for whom this pose is named.”20 What consequence might there be to invoking the spirit of a Hindu warrior?
Marichi’s Poses / Marichyasana A, B, C, D
Four seated contortionistic twists with arm binds are named after Marichi: Marichyasana A, B, C, and D. These poses are typically done in advanced levels of Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga and more athletic styles of gym yoga, for they require a great deal of flexibility in the joints of the shoulders, hips, and spine. Marichi is the son of Brahma, the Hindu creator god, and a sage, though not very sagely. The poses are aptly named and patterned after him, since the myth suggests that he was a compressed, twisted, bound up character. Marichi cursed his subservient wife for a conflict of duty and petrified her into stone for abandoning the task of washing his feet so that she could greet Marichi’s father, Brahma, the creator god, who dropped by unexpectedly.21 The myth, which sympathetically portrays the plight of the hapless wife, may be a covert social criticism against the abuses of women in India, ironically featuring a sage as the abuser.
Side Plank / Vasistha’s Pose / Vasisthasana
A one-sided hand balance is named after Vasistha, priest sage and son of Brahma, the creator god. The basic version, known as side plank, is an upper body core conditioning exercise common to western calisthenics: the body is held rigid in a one handed, side oriented pushup supported by two kickstands: the palm of the bottom hand and outer edge of the bottom foot. How common is the side plank to western calisthenics? The pose was used in training U.S. marines and is found in the United States’ War Department’s Basic Field Manual: Physical Training (1941).22 In gym contexts, side plank includes kneeling modifications for beginners and an intermediate leg lift variation. The pose and its modifications do not appear in the premodern yoga repertoire, despite good representation of hand balances in yoga manuals by the 18th century. It may have been appropriated from Danish gymnastics and modified.23 Yogic versions of side plank are more varied and complex and involve placing the upper leg in different yoga poses such as tree, half lotus, and side extended hand-to-big-toe pose. As with all transnational poses, side plank takes on yogic significance when yogic variations are added or when the basic western pose is performed in a yoga class or a class of mixed content—yoga plus something else or yoga converted into something else.
The pose commemorates the Brahmin Vasistha who owned a magic wish-fulfilling cow that was highly coveted and repeatedly targeted for abduction by an envious warrior king, Vishvamitra, after whom another pose is named (details below). A protracted conflict ensued, involving devastating losses on both sides. The conflict was as much, if not more, a contest of occult powers as a dispute over a cow. Vasistha released occult power through the sacred chant or hypnotic spell “Om” (representing the Hindu Supreme Reality) to annihilate Vishvamitra’s entire army, presumably because one magic cow is worth more than a whole host of men. One version of the myth says that Vasistha lost his temper and a thousand sons in the conflict and destroyed his opponent’s celestial weapons of mass destruction with a greater celestial weapon.24 One might ask whether a fit of rage over personal property is appropriate for a Brahmin, a Hindu priest who supposedly exemplifies non-attachment and non-dual reality (no subject/object)? Let the Hindu reader decide. Another version says that Vasistha lost one hundred sons in the conflict yet remained sangfroid (composed), as all good yogis do.25 One might ask whether calm acceptance of a hundred sons slain is meritorious in a father. Let the Jewish or Christian reader decide.
Vishvamitra’s Pose / Vishvamitrasana
The pose named after the envious and bellicose warrior king, Vishvamitra, is a hand balance, though much more challenging. Why? Spiritual competition! Vishvamitra, though covetous of the magic cow, became obsessed with surpassing the cow owner’s occult powers; thus, his side oriented hand balance exceeds the other’s in difficulty. Aadil Palkhivala, Yoga Journal editor and long-time student of yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar, offers a more complimentary explanation, suggesting that the pose is more difficult because “his sadhana [spiritual practice] was more difficult,” reflecting his arduous spiritual journey of self-transformation from murderous thief to saintly sage.26
Vishvamitrasana is a side plank in the splits with the free hand grabbing the overhead foot of a fully abducted (side extended) bottom leg, or the abducted leg propped against the supporting balancing arm. The spectacular strenuousness of the pose embodies the king’s spiritual ambition and overachieving temperament, a temperament that drove him to spend thousands of years in austerities in order to jump rung in the Hindu caste system and acquire a string of ever more illustrious spiritual titles of Rajarshi, Rishi, Maharishi, and Brahmarshi, not to mention his authorial achievements of composing a legal text, an Ayurvedic medical text, and most of the Rig Veda, a collection of Hinduism’s most ancient, sacred hymns, including the national sunrise chant, the Gayatri mantra.27
While the king’s superhuman effort and achievements are stunning in the Hindu sense—especially the emptying of his personality and with it, his transgressor’s ways—the myth highlights the disparity between the Hindu theology and Biblical theology. In Hinduism, which presupposes the sameness or identity of man and god, a person with criminal proclivities can reform himself and remake himself into a holy man as if he had the power of man-making within him, as if he were god and holy in nature. (One might well ask how a holy being could become denatured or how god could forget or misplace his divinity.) In Judaism and Christianity, which is based on the otherness of man and God, no man has the power to make himself holy or god-like; rather, man must concede his imperfectability and rely on a morally perfect God for remission of sins and atonement, imputed righteousness and right standing.
Besides Vishvamitra who through sheer will power and asceticism over millennia turned his truculent, green-eyed, grabby self into “everybody’s darling—the friend of everybody” (the literal meaning of his name),28 several other sages have poses named after and dedicated to them: Ashtavakra, a lame sage; Matsyendra and Goraksha, yogi adepts; and Koundinya, devotee of Ganesh, the elephant god.
Eight Angle Pose / Ashtavakra’s Pose / Ashtavakrasana
Eight angle pose is named after Ashtavakra, a spiritual prodigy who while still in utero repeatedly corrected his scholarly father’s mispronunciations of hymn recitations from the Rig Veda. His father, who must have been feeling spiritually indisposed, got so provoked that he repeatedly cursed his son so that he was born a deformed cripple. The pose aptly commemorates the lame sage, for it is an awkward-looking, lopsided, bent elbow and bent knee hand balance in which one hand is threaded through crossed legs that stick out to one side. In a more redemptive version of the myth, Ashtavakra remained loyal and rescued his father from banishment to a watery realm after his father lost a priestly debate at a royal court. Despite the hardships of a long journey for a lame man, Ashtavakra appeared at court to challenge the man who had defeated his father; the royal entourage mocked him until he spoke and astonished them with his spiritual knowledge, by which he won his father’s release and inspired the discipleship of all present, including the king.29
New Age practitioners derive various moral lessons from the pose, such as persevering through hardship, overlooking humiliation, and not judging by appearances, for the pose, which looks odd and tricky, is “one of the easiest of arm balances if you just know the technique”.30 While the myth’s central figure has heroic qualities, the myth’s main message of salvation through study or knowledge—the Hindu path of wisdom (jnana)—is at odds with the Biblical message of salvation through a person, the Person of God. In the Biblical view, what you know cannot save you, but friendship with a saving God can.
Koundinya’s Pose / Koundinyasana 2
Koundinyasana 2 is an advanced hand balance with one leg extended sideways and propped on an upper arm and the other leg extended backward. The pose is named after the sage Koundinya, who mastered the Vedas at an early age and who was a devotee of Ganesh, the elephant god and offspring of Shiva and his consort Parvati. In one myth, Parvati created the sage Koundinya to be a vintner of the sap of the wild date palm to supply “the wants of gods and men” with an intoxicating beverage celebrated by “gods and demons”. In another myth, Koundinya proved the importance of durva, a sacred grass, to his skeptical wife and all the gods by sending her on an errand to have the grass weighed in the balancing scales, which grass weighed more than all the gold a certain god had in his possession as well as all the gods who climbed into the pan opposite the pan containing the grass.31 The form of the pose best represents the myth of the scales, since getting into the pose requires a precarious balancing act in which the practitioner inch-worms through a weight shift that offsets the weight of the side leg with the weight of the back leg.32
The grass associated with the Koundinya myth is used in ritual idol worship of several Hindu deities—Ganesh, Shiva, and Shakti—to completely deck the body of the idol except for the face, which idol, according to one source, is believed to exude the primal essence of the deity that the grass absorbs and emits in subtle form to “benefit” the gross, subtle, and causal bodies of the worshiper and to reduce adverse stagnant (tamasic) and frenetic (rajasic) energies in the environment.33 In the Biblical view, the grass is not intrinsically sacred, but a fetish and an occult contact object that can transmit demonic power derived from idol worship.
Lord of Fish Pose / Matsyendra’s Pose / Matsyendrasana
Lord of fish pose (Matsyendrasana) and cow protector pose (Gorakshasana) are named after and dedicated to two yogis who are medieval co-founders of hatha yoga: Matsyendra, the yoga guru, and his more disciplined disciple, Goraksha. Although Matsyendra and Goraksha were actual persons to whom the physical practice of hatha yoga is attributed, legends about them are outlandish. In one such legend, a Vedic astrologer advised Matsyendra’s parents that the boy was born under an ill-omened constellation, so they spurned him and cast him into an ocean where he was swallowed by a gigantic fish. Inside the fish, he eavesdropped on private lessons of erotic, esoteric yoga practices that Shiva gave his consort on the shoreline of Moon Island (or the ocean floor, depending on which version of the myth), after which spiritual transmission Matsyendra emerged as an enlightened master, having practiced yoga inside the fish’s gut for twelve years. This knowledge of Tantric yoga—the path to enlightenment through sex—later got him into trouble as it fired up his penchant for attractive women and ensnared him in the world of appearances. Craving the lascivious life of a king, Matsyendra used his occult yogic powers (siddhis) to project himself into the king’s body so that he could copulate with the queen and the king’s harem, too. Matsyendra forgot his yogic path in the queen’s boudoir and the king’s harem of 1600 women where he swooned in a sexual stupor, “languishing in a forest of beautiful thighs”.34 The pose, a seated spinal twist, might reflect yoga in a cramped quarters, as a fish’s belly must be. It is a classic described in two yoga manuals, one dating from the 15th century CE (1400s) and another from the 17th-18th centuries CE (1600-1700s).
Cow Herder – Cow Protector Pose / Goraksha’s Pose / Gorakshasana
Unlike the seated spinal twist, which is relatively easy, Goraksha’s pose, cow herder or cow protector, is difficult, done by few, and likely harmful to the knees: it is a kneeling Pretzel pose—lotus balancing on the knees. This modern version is based on a classic pose dating to a yoga manual from the 17th-18th centuries CE, whose description is vague, but suggests a seated meditation posture. The pose pays tribute to Goraksha.
As his bucolic name implies, Goraksha was born into the lower caste under odious circumstances. His mother, a barren peasant woman, prayed for a son, and Shiva (or the guru Matsyendra in another version) gave her magical ashes to eat that would ensure pregnancy. Supposing the ashes to be mere ashes, she flung them on the village dung heap. After twelve years, the guru Matsyendra inquired after the woman, who admitted to dumping the ashes, and together they visited the dung mound where the guru exhumed her twelve-year-old son Goraksha, now perfected, having practiced yoga in dung since birth. Goraksha became devoted to Matsyendra and used his occult yogic powers (siddhis) to serve his master, including shape-shifting himself into a female musician (or dancer) to camouflage himself among the concubines in the king’s harem so that he could rescue his bedazzled guru who had forsaken his spiritual path for sensual indulgence. After rousing his guru with the Morse code rhythm of “Awaken [O guru, your disciple has come]!” in the beating of the drum, Goraksha shocked his guru into yogic consciousness by slaying and skinning the son his guru had sired with the queen, which skin he scrubbed and hung out to dry, symbolizing “yogic purification”.35
Admittedly, the myth raises more moral, spiritual, and mentoring issues about yoga than it resolves (no comment necessary), but New Age practitioners find support for yogic austerities (tapasya) and the value of rejects and rejection: “It is the part of us that is thrown away that becomes the yogi. The rejected child, tossed into the ocean or onto a dung heap, becomes the genius, the inspiration for practice.”36 This statement—although not intended to be so—is a profound admission that what may draw or drive many practitioners into yoga is personal rejection, or to put it another way, a lack of existential validity or affirmation in one’s life, which the perfection of yoga then becomes. The draw or drive toward yoga springing from personal negation is both sad and ironic since yoga is not a refuge from rejection but an asylum of self-rejection at its meditative core. Rejection is a major spiritual problem of humanity; the yogic solution is to lean into it fully until the rejected one disappears.
Creatures and Creation Poses
The next category of yoga poses is creature and creation poses. Creatures have god-like significance in Hinduism because Hinduism is a pantheistic religion that presupposes god is in everything and that god is everything. In the Hindu view, creatures are not only an abode inhabited by god, but they are fully invested with god-being. In fact, all creation is considered a manifestation and expression of the indwelling god that is immanent in nature, even things that are inanimate, insentient, and inorganic like mountains, sun, and moon. With this in mind, creature and creation poses in yoga have pantheistic meaning in the general sense of universal being or universal nature—god pervading all and existing in all.
Additionally, some creature and creation poses represent specific gods in the Hindu pantheon. These creatures and aspects of creation are related to certain gods or are considered gods in their own right—gods who have distinct personalities, who take unique forms, who perform specific functions in creation, and are featured in certain myths. A creature that is allied with a particular Hindu god serves that god in some capacity: it may have played a role in the god’s myth, or it may be an emblem of that god, or it may be a personal mount or charger—a living mode of transportation—for that god. At a deeper level of correspondence, some creatures are identified with a Hindu god because they are incarnations or avatars of that god. In this case, the creature is equivalent to the god who took the form of the creature in some Hindu myth. To illustrate these concepts, let’s consider a few examples.
Peacock Pose / Mayurasana
Among creatures that represent and serve Hindu gods, the eagle (garuda) and peacock (mayura) are good examples. According to Hindu lore, the peacock was formed from a single eagle feather. The peacock is associated with many gods, among the better known, the mischievous weather and war god, Indra; the goddess of prosperity, Lakshmi; and the warrior-hero Krishna who is a human incarnation or avatar of the preserver and protector god, Vishnu. Krishna wears a peacock feather in his crown given to him by the king of peacocks who offered all his feathers in gratitude for Krishna’s music. Indra was shielded in war by the splayed feathers of a peacock; he sits on a peacock throne and turns himself into a peacock, while Lakshmi rides a peacock as her personal conveyance, as do other gods.37
Peacock pose is a classic; it is an advanced hand balance in which the prone body, straight as a board, rests on bent elbows; the legs may be extended straight back like the long train of a peacock tail, or the legs may be folded in the Pretzel pose, lotus. In the straight-legged variation, men who bear more mass in the shoulders hover parallel to the ground, whereas women who bear more mass in the hips get leverage by tipping the head down and the feet up like a tilted teeter-totter. This hand balance pays tribute to the mythological bird, which is the national bird of India and considered sacred.38
Eagle Pose / Garudasana
The eagle is the king of all birds and a demigod in Hinduism; it is a symbol of Vishnu, the Hindu preserver and protector god, as well as Vishnu’s charger or live chariot, which Vishnu rides through the air. In Hindu mythology, the eagle Garuda is a hybrid being—half bird, half man—with an eagle head that spits emeralds; eagle wings and talons, and a man’s torso. In the Mahabharata, Garuda surmounted hazardous obstacles in swashbuckling style to secure a ransom of elixir to release his imprisoned mother who was tricked by (or who lost a wager to) her sister and rival co-wife, being doomed to (slavery in) the netherworld guarded by snakes. Surveying the earth from a celestial tree, Garuda swoops down to devour serpents and dragons, which are his arch-enemies; therefore, he is petitioned by Hindus to neutralize snake bites.39
The classic eagle pose of centuries-old yoga manuals is not the same as the modern pose: the classic pose is oriented in the prone position though other details are uncertain; the modern pose is a standing one legged balance in which both arms and legs are intertwined like vines. Despite the difference in form, the modern pose still showcases and honors the demigod bird by its name and shape, which lends itself to posture cues in class. Consider the mythological metaphors made in the following pose pointers given by yoga teacher Erica Varlese, posted on her yoga blog:
In eagle pose, one leg is crossed over the other, resembling the perch of a bird. Coming into eagle arms, you spread your “wings” out wide, before drawing them in towards center, effectively broadening your back and feeling a beautiful stretch across your upper body. […]
Think of the phrase “eagle eyes.” In garudasana [eagle pose], you become hyper-focused on your balance, concentrating on the path in front of you. Just like Garuda, you can see challenges, but with clear vision, you find the skills to overcome them.40
Varlese is no exception among yoga teachers who get their insight and motivation for pose instruction and personal life from Hindu mythology. Varlese considers herself “lucky” to research, study, and pass on Hindu mythology, one of her “favorite parts of yoga,” which she finds “endlessly fascinating”.41 Even teachers of gym yoga are likely to use mythological metaphors in their pose instruction because of the way yoga has been transmitted from Hindus to non-Hindus in the West. Indeed, the revival of yoga has come with a concomitant revival of Hindu mythology.
B.K.S. Iyengar, the yoga guru educator whose yoga was organized into a certification system that verged on bureaucratic,42 also “enjoyed […] thinking about the links between postures and the activities of figures from classical narrative”. In fact, Iyengar’s discourses and writing were “bursting” with references to “narrative Hindu lore,” lore that he and his yoga compeers memorialized by naming many poses in the modern repertoire after action figures in Hindu myth—action figures that yoga practitioners could shape themselves into and model themselves after. Not only did Iyengar present poses in “mythic terms,” but his “physical presence itself” reinforced the “link between the asanas [poses] and classical Indian cultural and religious imagery”. As one student remarked: “he assumed mythic proportions seemingly larger than life with his commanding presence”.43
Although Iyengar’s ability to awe people may have been due to personal magnetism and certain religious attributes like the conspicuous trident shaped sectarian mark on his forehead that he often wore in abridged form as a single red line splitting his brow (vadakalai thiruman), it is much more likely that a spiritual power was operating in and through him. According to yoga scholars and practitioners who knew him well, Iyengar was discreet and never proselytized publicly, yet the Hindu aspect of his life and personality exerted a subtle influence that would “passively leak into and permeate his yoga teachings and persona as guru”.44 Because the spirit in or behind a message is the primary force of a message, we may assume that anyone who has been exposed to Iyengar or studied Iyengar yoga has been exposed to the spiritual power of Hinduism, a power that is caught more than taught, as Iyengar suggests:
I first worked to make them accept it [yoga] as an art. I made them understand it as a science, and then made them absorb it as a philosophy or way of life.45
Now let’s consider some poses based on creature gods and creation gods. In Hinduism, the star in our solar system and the earth’s satellite—the sun and moon—are considered embodiments of the solar and lunar gods Surya and Chandra. Because these gods have more than one yoga pose dedicated to them—in fact, an entire sequence of poses that serves as the centerpiece or framework of a yoga class—we will examine them in detail in the chapter on the Sun and Moon Salutes. Of the creature gods, the fish, tortoise, lion, and cow are relevant examples because they are all animal incarnations of the Hindu preserver and protector god, Vishnu. According to the Bhagavad Gita, Vishnu has ten different incarnations or avatars: four animals, one dwarf, three heroes (including the popular Rama and Krishna), one religious figure (Buddha), and a future avatar whose head is a white horse. Another text, the Bhagavata Purana, submits that Vishnu has innumerable incarnations.46 Let’s examine the myths of the creature gods to whom these four poses are dedicated. Practitioners who do these poses honor Vishnu, whose poses they are, either intentionally or unintentionally.
Fish Pose / Matsyasana
Fish pose is fashioned after the first avatar or incarnation of Vishnu; its curvilinear form resembles the bendy shape of a fish swimming in water. In a myth recounted in the Matsya Purana (and Bhagavata Purana), Vishnu metamorphoses himself into a tiny fish to save the world from an impending cataclysm due to the creator god Brahma’s delinquency of sleeping on the job, which causes chaos in creation. The tiny fish swims into a king’s hand while he is bathing in a river and asks for his protection but soon outgrows all of the king’s fishbowls until it is gargantuan enough to moor a ship on its horn to transport the seed of all living beings, and in some versions, a mating pair of every creature, the seven sages, and the king, who happens to be the progenitor of the human race in that eon. In Hindu iconography, the fish is depicted in zoological form as a full fish or in hybrid form with the upper half man and the lower half fish.47
Fish pose is a classic, described in a yoga manual from the 17th-18th centuries CE (1600-1700s). It is a supine, upper body backbend in which the thorax arches; it may be done with lotus legs (classic) or straight legs (modified). Fish pose is usually performed as a counterpose following an inversion series of shoulder stand plus plow to counteract spinal flexion with spinal extension. The straight-legged modified version, which is commonly performed in basic hatha yoga and gym yoga, is a transnational pose. An exercise in Niels Bukh’s Primary Gymnastics is almost identical: “Back-lying. Head bending backward (Chest raising)”.48 When performed in a yoga class or class of mixed yoga content, fish pose takes on yogic significance.
Tortoise-Turtle Pose / Kurmasana
Tortoise pose is fashioned after the second avatar or incarnation of Vishnu; its shell shape resembles a turtle. In a myth recounted in the Puranas (the Bhagavata and others), Vishnu devises a method, much like the operation of a primitive food processor, to churn the Ocean of milk for a millennium to make an elixir of immortality so that the gods and demons can live forever. Vishnu turns himself into a tortoise and carries a mountain on his back to serve as a churning pole, while a serpent king coils himself around the mountain to serve as a churning string or pulley. All of the gods and demons cooperate in a line up like tug-of-war teams on either side of the Ocean of milk to alternately pull the serpent by the head or tail in order to rotate the mountain and churn the milk. In Hindu iconography, the tortoise is depicted in zoological form or hybrid form with the upper half man and the lower half tortoise.49
Tortoise pose is a classic. The earlier version of the pose in a yoga manual dated to the 15th century CE (1400s) is obscure, but a later version in a yoga manual dated to the 17th-18th centuries CE (1600-1700s) is adequately described and still practiced today. Tortoise is a contortion: the practitioner spreads the legs in a partial straddle split and bends the torso forward, pressing the chest flat against the floor, bending the knees and crossing the feet behind the neck. More difficult versions involve binding the arms (clasping the hands behind the back), performing the pose in a supine recumbent position (urdhva kurmasana), or as a seated balance (uttana kurmasana), or as a hand balance (supta kurmasana).
The scholar Sjoman has published a revealing historical account of a raj or Indian prince practicing this pose during a yoga session, as recorded in royal records by an eyewitness. The observer, who was a Hindu like the raj, alludes to the Vishnu/tortoise avatar myth as if it were a present reality; he remarks that the raj who folds himself into tortoise pose looks so much like a tortoise and exudes so much of the essential nature of the tortoise that he inspires the gods to reenact the myth: “He looks like a tortoise. Seeing this, heavenly gods take the churning stick in their hands thinking that it is time for them to churn the ocean once again”.50
While westerners would hardly recognize the significance of such a statement or would dismiss it as metaphorical hyperbole, Sjoman notes that mystical identification with the pose figure and magical regard for the power emanating from the figure is an approach some practitioners do take: “animal or object names might be used to indicate a particular power in that being that is acquired from taking the position named thus”; “they [practitioners] may do it [a yoga pose] symbolically expecting some spiritual advantage to come from them taking that particular form”.51 This is more than magical thinking, as Sjoman suggests. The Hindu view, which is the correct one, regards yoga poses as imbued with spiritual significance, spiritual presence, and spiritual power. In the Hindu view, the act of conforming the body into a Hindu entity converts the soul into that Hindu entity. From a Biblical perspective, verisimilitude elicits a response from the spirit realm: mimicking a spiritual entity attracts the spirit of the entity. This is not surprising. All of us are attracted to our own image: how much more spirits who crave worship?
Lion Pose / Simhasana
Lion pose is fashioned after the fourth avatar or incarnation of Vishnu, the lion (simha) or lion-man (nara-simha). Its gargoyle-like distortion of the human face mimics the face of a lion in kill mode. In Hindu mythology, this fierce or ferocious aspect of Vishnu was provoked by a demon who taunted a Vishnu devotee and dared him, “If your god [Vishnu] is omnipresent, is he in this pillar also?” The demon scornfully kicked the pillar, and Vishnu transmogrified himself into a hybrid lion-man, bolting from the pillar to disembowel the mocker of Vishnu worship. In Hindu iconography, the lion-man is often depicted as slashing open the mocker’s belly and yanking out a garland of guts.52 That is what lion pose commemorates and imitates.
Lion pose is among the classics. It is a kneeling pose that mimics a lion’s face and forepaws: fingers are flared like claws; mouth gapes; tongue protrudes; eyes cross and stare at the nose tip or roll back and stare at the third eye (mid-brow). Modern versions may embellish: a Yoga Journal how-to article prompts the practitioner to “roar two or three times”. Roaring is omitted in the classics; it disrupts interior focus and a prescribed muscle lock in the neck or constricted throat (jalandhara bandha). The writer wryly (and ironically) remarks that “Nobody wants to partner with a lion,” yet the practitioner does just that.53
The royal record of the raj’s yoga session mentioned above also includes an account of the raj performing lion pose. In doing lion pose, the Indian prince did not just emulate the lion-god, he embodied the lion-god, as the royal record states: “He [the raj] is verily Narashimha, the [lion] god” (italics mine).54 The Hindu view recognizes that a spiritual transaction, transference, or transmutation takes place when a practitioner performs a yoga pose. In vesting the body with the entity symbolized by the pose, the practitioner hosts that entity. The practitioner—the true occupant of the body—defers to the guest. While this may sound outrageous to those unfamiliar with Hindu thought, the embodiment of a creature god in human form or the human manifestation of a creature god is taken for granted in Hinduism.
This concept of incarnational reality is not foreign to Judaism or Christianity, but is limited to divinity investing itself in humanity, not some other aspect of creation. Incarnational reality is perhaps best exemplified in Jesus’ statement to His disciples, “I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (John 14:20) and the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation in which the elements of communion—the bread and wine—become the body and blood of Christ. This mystery is based on Christ’s statement, “Take, eat [this bread]; this is My body. Drink [this cup] all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt 26:26-27 NKJV).
This concept is also present in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), though to a lesser degree. One example is when the prophet Elisha “took up the mantle”—the vesture or vestment—of the prophet Elijah, after which the spirit of Elijah rested on Elisha, and Elisha moved in the same spiritual power as Elijah, performing twice as many miracles, signs, and wonders as his spiritual mentor (2 Kings 2). The vestment of the prophet was associated with the spirit of the prophet and was passed from one to the other with God’s sanction of the transaction.
Because the outward form—the vesture (or in Hinduism, the body itself)—is invested with spirit, taking on the outward form invests a person with the spirit inhabiting the outward form. Unlike Judaism and Christianity, however, where spiritual vestment must be undertaken purposefully and sincerely with both parties to the transaction agreeing and deferring to God’s sovereign will in the matter, in Hinduism human awareness and will are irrelevant. Moreover, in Judaism and Christianity, divinity—divine presence and power—only rests on or dwells in humans because they are made in God’s image, never on animals or the insentient or inanimate in creation. In Hinduism, divinity inhabits anything and everything. This divinity is, of course, regarded as demonic from a Biblical perspective.
This notion of taking on another or becoming another is apparently understood to some extent even by illustrious academics who practice yoga, as for example, Frederick Smith, who wrote that the yoga guru Iyengar with his long, flowing mane-like hair unmistakably came “to resemble Narasimha, the lion man of Hindu mythology” and attained “iconic status […] as the powerful Narasimha or Man-Lion of classical mythology” (italics mine).55 Whether Iyengar exuded a spiritual presence and power associated with the lion avatar, only his disciples know. However, any reader of Iyengar’s book Light on Yoga can see that Iyengar’s performance of lion pose as captured in two photographs is more than just a yoga pose.56 In this author’s opinion, Iyengar’s face, which looks eerie and ghoulish, hosts another face that is a gate to Hades.
Cow Face Pose / Cow Mouth Pose / Gomukhasana
Cow face pose or cow mouth pose resembles the face of a cow. The cow is the mascot of Krishna, who is the eighth avatar or human incarnation of Vishnu and “the Supreme Personality of the Godhead” for some Hindus. Cow face is a classic seated pose. One version, now archaic, involves sitting on crossed heels (heels placed “contrariwise under buttocks”: Gheranda Samhita or GhS 2.16), whereas another version that has survived into the modern period involves crossing the thighs—stacking one thigh on top of the other (Hatha Yoga Pradipika or HYP 1:20). The accompanying arm position—a common triceps/rotator cuff stretch—in which the fingers of the overhead hand hook with the fingers of the underneath hand between the shoulder blades seems to be a modern invention.
Because the cow represents Krishna, Krishna’s backstory will help to explain the spiritual implications of this pose. Krishna, the charioteer in the karma yoga epic, the Bhagavad Gita, counsels the commander Arjuna who is conflicted about going to war against members of his own family. Krishna persuades Arjuna to go to war by relaying Hindu concepts of karmic fate and detachment, namely, by advising him that his clan is “destined to die”; that Arjuna is only “a mortal appointee” of Krishna’s will; that dispassionate prosecution of the war is the best course of action since it cancels future consequences and halts the wheel of rebirth, whereas emotional attachment reinforces consequences and prolongs suffering in future reincarnations; that dying in one’s prime in battle is not so tragic since Arjuna’s real self is not a man anyway but a disembodied, impersonal, universal Self that cannot be butchered by weapons (2.23).57 Karma yoga, or relinquishing the fruits of action, is a Hindu doctrine strongly associated with Krishna. And now for the cow…
Krishna’s relationship to cows is dual. A cow herder in his youth, Krishna says of himself, “[…] among cows I am the wish fulfilling cow” (Bhagavad Gita, 10.28). The wish fulfilling cow is a divine cow that “descended the spiritual worlds” to earth to become the mother of all cows, and especially the hump backed, dewlapped cows of India that roam the streets and feast on garbage mounds. In Hinduism, cows are esteemed the “mothers of all creatures”. Aside from their milk products, which are approved in the dietary prescription section of one yoga text (HYP 1.62) but disapproved in another (GhS 5.26-27), cow ghee is stipulated by the Vedas as the preferred libation for Hindu sacrifices to “gratify the 33 million demigods” who manage the universe and without whose oversight the universe would fall apart. Among fabulous claims about cows, cow excrement is “pure”; cows are the “root of prosperity” (which explains why India is indigent overall?); and cows “bestow every kind of happiness”. Some Hindus consider the slaying of a cow or the consumption of beef as “the most heinous of all sins” for which a person is “condemned to rot in hell” for a period of time equal to the number of cow hairs slain or consumed.58
This, of course, contrasts sharply with the Hebrew account that God gave “every beast of the earth,” including the cow, into man’s hand; that every creature is to “fear” man, and that “every living and moving thing shall be food for you” (Genesis 9:2-3). While Indian cow beliefs may strike westerners as outrageous or ludicrous, Rabi Maharaj, a former Hindu yogi and cow worshiper, gives a sympathetic and compelling account in Death of a Guru (1977) of his paradigm shift after a cow he had been worshipping charged him.59 Suffice to say, a yoga practitioner who does cow face pose steps into the hooves of the sacred wish fulfilling cow and identifies with Krishna, whose sacred mascot is the cow.
Snake-Cobra Pose / Bhujangasana
While peacock, eagle, fish, tortoise, lion, and cow face are examples of poses that represent creature gods or gods who incarnate as creatures, other creature poses have different but equally potent spiritual significance. Snake or serpent pose, also known as cobra, is one of these. Snake pose is a prone stretch in which the chest or thorax is raised off the ground; the pose mimics a cobra standing partially erect and flaring its hood. While western calisthenics incorporates a similar position into spinal extension drills, the execution is very different, involving repetition, a brisk pace, and arm and leg movements, as in superman or swimmer variations. By contrast, snake pose is generally held still as a static posture, is done once rather than repeatedly, and is not combined with other movements.
Snake imagery abounds in Hinduism and has special importance in yoga. Shiva, the patron deity of yoga, is depicted with snake armlets and a cobra entwined around his neck, indicating that his intellect and work are wrapped in a snake spirit. To see an example of the snake as a familiar of Shiva, look at the statue of Shiva on the cover page of the online Chandra Vasu translation of the Gheranda Samhita, a classic yoga text: http://hinduonline.co/DigitalLibrary/SmallBooks/GherandaSamhitaSanEng.pdf. Notice the head of a woman popping out of Shiva’s head: that is Shakti, the goddess who personifies kundalini, the raised serpent power that has erupted out of Shiva’s crown chakra or energy center.
Patanjali, the author of the first yoga treatise, the Yoga Sutras, is depicted as a hybrid being whose upper half is man and whose lower half is snake; the snake-man wears a headdress flared like the hood of a cobra.60 Considered a sage and divine seer, the content of Patanjali’s yoga treatise and the imagery depicting him suggest that he was inspired by what the New Testament would call a python spirit or demon of divination, an emissary of darkness that relays supernatural knowledge—usually a blend of truth and falsehood—that brings destructive results (see Acts 16:16-24). How did the sage Patanjali wind up with a snake body anyway?
According to Hindu myth, Patanjali is the thousand headed serpent of infinity in the guise of a man. This serpent eavesdropped on a secret yoga discourse that Shiva gave his consort Uma in a remote jungle, but Shiva detected the serpent by his fleeting rustling through the bush and as punishment consigned him to share the yoga discourse with humans who, terrorized, violently assaulted him. On Shiva’s advice, the serpent adopted the disarming form of the human sage Patanjali, enabling him to deliver the message. According to Hindu tradition, Patanjali is the putative author of several works on yoga, grammar, and Ayurvedic medicine that are centuries apart, which is feasible for a perfected master (siddha) whose occult powers enable him to materialize whenever and wherever he chooses. The commentator on the Sutras, Vyasa, is likewise a seemingly deathless sage who wields occult powers: to him are attributed not only the Yoga Bhasya commentary on the Yoga Sutras, but volumes of literature spanning centuries, including the Mahabharata (action adventure), Bhagavad Gita (karma yoga philosophy), Brahma Sutra (Vedantic philosophy), and 36 Puranas (mythology).61 So Patanjali, the first great expositor of yoga, is a serpent in disguise. That makes yoga snake philosophy.
For those who may be skeptical of the extent to which Patanjali is taken seriously, it may be helpful to know that the yoga guru Iyengar, widely acknowledged as “the most visible and influential figure in the development and expansion of hathayoga (i.e. postural yoga)” in the West for 65 years, regarded Patanjali, the snake-man who authored the Yoga Sutras, and Vyasa, his commentator, as his gurus over and above his human guru Krishnamacharya, the grandfather of modern yoga. On Guru Purnima 2007, a festival dedicated to expressing gratitude to spiritual teachers, Iyengar began his address with the following greeting: “I salute my guru and the guru of all gurus in yoga—Vyasa and Patanjali”.62
What about the role of the serpent in relation to the practice of yoga itself? All yogic practices—poses, focal points, muscle locks, subtle positions of the hands and tongue, breathing exercises, and meditation—are supposed to rouse a dormant snake energy called kundalini. In yoga literature, kundalini is described as a snake slumbering in coiled ringlets at the base of the spine that, when stirred through yoga, uncoils and rises in a linear path up the central energy channel contiguous with the spine, piercing successive energy centers (chakras) and activating their higher powers as it goes, until it slips through a hole in the crown of the head, releasing the practitioner from himself.63 For example, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP), a classic yoga manual from the 15th century CE (1400s), prescribes the following yogic practices to rouse snake energy: sitting in a meditation pose called thunderbolt; performing a breathing exercise called bellows breath (3.115); and cinching the anal sphincter while lifting the perineum (3.61), a pelvic floor muscle contraction known as “root lock” that purportedly drives spiritual energy pooled in the gonads upward. Below are some sample verses from the HYP that depict spiritual energy as a snake that the practitioner manipulates through yoga:
As one opens a door with a key, so the yogi opens the door of liberation with Hatha’s kundalini (HYP 3.105).
The kundalini is said to be coil shaped, like a snake. He who causes this shakti [spiritual power] to move is liberated (HYP 3.108).
Grip her tail and wake the sleeping serpent. The shakti [spiritual power] stirs and surges upwards (HYP 3.111).
Interestingly, the Sanskrit word for snake or serpent, bhujang, is a visual shorthand for esoteric yogic physiology and especially the raising of kundalini, the snake energy or snake power, in the body through yoga. The word bhujang is a compound of bhuja, which refers to the circular coils or ringlets of a snake at rest, and anga, which refers to the straight, limb-like form of a snake on the move.64 The goal of all yogic exercises, no matter what they are—even a pelvic floor muscle contraction—is to force the curled and nested snake to move upward like a straight column: “Due to this heat [generated by a pelvic floor muscle contraction] the sleeping kundalini is awakened, hissing and straightening like a snake struck by a stick” (HYP 3.68). The snake rises “to pierce the knots” or energy centers along the central energy channel and break through “the aperture of Brahman,” the trapdoor at the top of the head that exits into space (Shiva Samhita 4.44). This ascent of spiritual energy in the body is associated with progressively higher levels of consciousness and ultimately with liberation from embodied existence.
The concept of spiritual energy is an oxymoron much like smart stump or rambunctious rock. Why? Because energy and spirit are fundamentally different, fundamentally other. Energy is a force of nature, a natural phenomenon in the material realm, whereas spirit is a metaphysical agent that transcends matter and energy. Energy is non-living and non-personal; it has no awareness or volition or subjective identity; it is a thing, an it that man can harness for power to do work. By contrast, spirit is alive and exhibits hallmarks of personality—awareness, volition, and subjective identity. The concept of spiritual energy muddles these distinctions and confers being, intelligence, and volition on what is insentient, inanimate, and inert.
The concept of spiritual energy counters human experience with every known form of energy, including wind power, water power, electricity, magnetism, heat, light, and the strong force. The concept of spiritual energy is not supported by scientific empiricism or rationalism; kundalini has never been proven to exist. It is contrary to Jewish and Christian faiths that distinguish the Creator from the created or creative beings from the non-creative creation. Spiritual energy only makes sense in the context of monism, a worldview that collapses fundamental distinctions between mind and matter, God and the world. Spiritual energy is a religious concept, and peculiarly Hindu at that.
If spiritual energy isn’t real, then why do yoga practitioners have kundalini experiences that range from astounding to petrifying? What creates these kundalini experiences reported by so many? The causal agent is not an energy, but a spirit. The mystical and paranormal experiences that practitioners attribute to kundalini, whether pleasurable or destructive, are manifestations of a spirit that is intelligent and has a will of its own, just as a snake is intelligent and has a will of its own that is self-serving and independent of man: these are rudimentary attributes of personhood. The snake metaphor so prevalent in yoga manuals implies agency, intelligence, and will—a rudimentary personality; in fact, the snake metaphor is a subtle—albeit unconscious—admission that kundalini is a spirit, not an energy. We will explore this in detail in the chapter on esoteric energy.
Crow-Crane Pose / Kakasana-Bakasana
Crow or crane pose, as it is variously called, is a hand balance in which bent knees are propped on upper arms. In the crow variation, the elbows are bent, forming ledges of the upper arms on which the shins perch; in crane, the arms are nearly straight and the knees perch higher, close to the armpits. Another variation of this hand balance is side crow or side crane, which involves twisting the thorax and mounting bent legs sideways on one arm.
One Hindu legend relays that a priest of the fierce or ferocious aspect of Krishna (Vishnu’s avatar) called Jagannatha (Juggernaut) chose the city of Puri, India, as a site for a temple to host the Jagannatha idol after he saw a crow nosedive into the Bay of Bengal. Apparently, the crow was an occult oracle confirming the site as auspicious for the spirit power behind Jagannatha. The temple houses a “horrifying wooden image […] with a black face and a gaping mouth as red as blood”. During a yearly festival, hundreds of Indians pull a towering 60 foot cart under whose wheels devotees have reputedly cast themselves. From this rite to Krishna and the apocryphal (?) account of voluntary maiming or death under rolling cartwheels comes the English word juggernaut, which refers to any indestructible, colossal, machine-like force, whether person, institution or movement, that inspires mindless submission and crushes obstacles in its path.65 To my knowledge, no yoga teacher has alluded to this myth of the crow for obvious reasons. The cry of the crane in India is thought to have a similar oracular function, notifying wildlife (and humans?) of impending doom or boon.66
Unlike other yoga poses, crow or crane lacks the profusion of Hindu backstories, but this dearth does not deter yoga teachers who find meaning in world mythology and append myths of other cultures to the pose. One yoga teacher, for example, explains that birds are messengers of the gods and symbols of transcendence because they fly between heaven and earth; she also relays a Tibetan Buddhist legend that “When the first Dalai Lama was born, […] he was visited by black crows,” apparently oblivious to the fact that crows have been a portent of evil and death in American culture for some time, as evinced by Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven” and its spate of pop culture spinoffs, and Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film The Birds, which features a “murder” of crows.67
Another yoga teacher draws from natural history, Roman mythology of crows, and Chinese symbolism of cranes from the book Animal Speak to offer “possible spiritual aspects” or meanings of the pose. Among these meanings, she submits that crow feather “black is the color of creation,” the dark “womb out of which the new is born,” and that “crow and crane as totems activate the sacral chakra—your creative [sexual, reproductive, and artistic] energies”. She also suggests that the crow penchant for building nests high in treetops and for posting a sentinel crow to warn of danger is related to the watchfulness needed to perch atop arms and to the communication function activated by the pose: “crow and crane as totems […] activate the throat [or communication] chakra”. Like many yoga teachers who assume the role of life coach to students, she concludes by exhorting students with pep pop mysticism: “Wherever crows are, there is magic. Accept that you are magical”.68
As a bricolage of world myths, crow/crane reveals the general tendency of yoga practitioners to approach creature poses as an exercise in totemic transfiguration, even if they have to draw from other religions or create their own. This creative license is in line with the historic development of Hinduism, which is a religion of layered accretions, and yoga, whose poses are an eastern form of transubstantiation, a conversion of the elements or substance of the practitioner’s body into the divine, whether by mystic appropriation of attributes of a divine being, mystic convergence with a divine being, or mystic transmutation of the practitioner’s body into a divine being, or the spiritual being of the cosmos.
Rooster-Cock / Kukkutasana
The last pose we will examine in the category of creature poses is rooster. Rooster or cock pose is a classic hand balance with arms threaded through Pretzel or lotus legs. Two advanced variations are entered via headstand: upward rooster (urdhva kukkutasana) in which lotus legs are folded in toward the torso and propped on upper arms, and sideways rooster (parsva kukkutasana) in which the thorax is twisted and lotus legs are propped sideways on one upper arm. Unlike crow, rooster has no Hindu myth associated with it to this author’s knowledge. Nevertheless, rooster, like all creature poses, “carries a connection with the ancient shamanic tradition of animal imitation”.69
One Sivananda yoga teacher, Swami Radha, for example, recommends reflecting on the qualities of the rooster while in the pose: “observe how the physical position relates to the symbol of the rooster” as a “herald of the dawn” or one who “awakens the glorious sun”. The practitioner, by fashioning herself into the shape of a rooster and meditating on the rooster as the one who bids or greets the sun, can dispel her own darkness: “Before going into the pose, review your mind for areas of darkness—negativity, pessimism or fear. As you do the pose or visualize yourself in the pose, bring to mind the rooster awakening the sun, dispelling darkness. Keep your focus on Light, repeating the Divine Light mantra as support”.70 In this meditation or visualization, animal imitation slides into animism, the belief that the natural world of animals, plants, and inanimate objects contains spiritual essence: in other words, that the rooster and practitioner both possess the divine light within in equal measure.
What conclusion can be made from these many examples? Here is what Sjoman, the Sanskrit scholar, yoga scholar, and yoga instructor, says about the symbolic treatment of yoga poses:
The asanas [yoga poses] are assumed to have an inner nature that is associated with their specific name. In other words, there is a mystical realization content connected with each particular asana. […] The [practitioner] becomes the embodiment of the essence of that asana. The asanas [yoga poses] thus have a much greater dimension than mere physical elements. This is not immediately noticeable to someone not familiar with the language.71
The mystical tradition carries out the yogic goal of union, for the yoga practitioner becomes what the pose represents: the poses are an exercise in spiritual shapeshifting. The aphorism, “You become what you behold,” is now “You become what pose you hold”. This category of yoga poses embodies veneration of creation and collapses creation and Creator into one.
For the Christian or Jew, striking poses that have religious significance in Hinduism is to embody Hindu spiritual goals and become a living statue for Hindu gods, demigods, sages, and other mythological creatures. To become a living statue for Hindu gods is to step into the role of an avatar, a human incarnation of a Hindu deity. Technically, this physical performance, even if intended as something else, is a breach of several related commandments against making an idol, worshipping an idol, and worshiping God on pagan altars or in pagan ways. Yoga poses are an internalized form of idolatry: instead of carving, sculpting or casting a statue of a creature, the practitioner fashions herself into the shape of a creature. Here are two familiar scriptural injunctions against creature craft—one in the Tanakh and one in the New Testament—with bracketed interpolations applying to yoga:
You shall not make [out of] yourself [an] image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above [eagle or crow], or that is in the earth beneath [cow or rabbit], or that is in the water under the earth [crocodile or fish]; you shall not bow down to them or serve them. Exodus 20:4 NKJV (interpretive brackets mine)
Professing to be wise, [yoga practitioners] became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man [mythological sages like Marichi, Vishvamitra, and Matsyendra]—and birds [like rooster and peacock] and four-footed animals [like dog, camel, and lion] and creeping things [like cobra, scorpion, and tortoise]. Roman 1:22-24 NKJV (interpretive brackets mine)
Offering worship to Adonai or Jesus via yoga poses is equivalent to the Israelites sacrificing to God on “the high places” that were pagan sites of worship, about which God said, “Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings anywhere you please” (Deut 12:3). Yoga converts the body into a pagan altar or high place. Even if a Jew or Christian abjures the Hindu content of poses and in all sincerity and with a clear conscience offers the poses as bodily form of worship to Adonai or Jesus, it remains true that she has adopted and adapted a pagan practice; it remains true that she is following the practices of the nations; that she is imitating the nations; that she is doing what they do:
They imitated the nations around them although the Lord had ordered them, “Do not do as they do”. 2 Kings 17:15
All this [the deportation into exile] took place because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God. They […] followed the practices of the nations […]. 2 Kings 17:7
The consequences are serious given the history of Israel in the Tanakh. Could this be the reason, in part, why Jews and Christians are, by and large, afflicted or plundered? Could this be the reason why, by and large, Jews and Christians do not host the Presence of God; why they do not display the power of God, and why they are not a sign and wonder to the nations yet?
Synopsis of Poses Dedicated to Hindu Gods, Demigods, and Sages
- King Dancer (Natarajasana): Shiva, the Hindu destroyer god, patron deity of yoga and meditation
- Splits (Hanumasana): Hanuman, monkey god who served King Rama, a human avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu, the Hindu preserver and protector god
- Warrior 1, 2, 3 (Virabhadrasana): warrior son and avatar (incarnation) of Shiva who slew Shiva’s brother and guests at a party in retaliation for insults that provoked Shiva’s wife to commit suicide by casting herself into fire
- Marichyasana A, B, C, D: sage and son of Brahma, the Hindu creator god, who cursed his wife and petrified her into stone for abandoning the task of washing his feet in order to greet their father who dropped in unexpectedly
- Side Plank (Vasisthasana): sage, Brahmin priest, and son of Brahma, who owned a wish fulfilling cow that he secured from theft with his occult powers
- Side Plank Splits (Vishvamitrasana): criminal king who reformed himself and ascended the caste system by practicing austerities for millennia
- Eight Angle (Ashtavakrasana): sage who, while still in utero, corrected his father’s recitation of Vedic hymns, and thereby incurred his father’s curse to be born crippled, but who rescued his father from banishment by impressing the king’s court with his Vedic knowledge
- Koundinyasana 2: sage and devotee of the elephant god, Ganesh, who proved to his skeptical wife the importance of sacred grass in grass decking rituals of Hindu idols by sending her on an errand to weigh the grass, which weighed more than all gods who climbed into the pan opposite the grass on the scales
- Lord of Fish (Matsyendrasana): guru and medieval co-founder of hatha yoga who learned the secrets of Tantric yoga and occult arts while in a fish’s belly and later projected himself into the body of a king in order to copulate with the queen and the king’s harem and who ultimately “languished in a forest of thighs”
- Cow Protector (Gorakshasana): disciple and medieval co-founder of hatha yoga who was born of magical ashes flung on a dung heap and who rescued his guru from sexual stupor by shape-shifting himself into a woman and skinning his guru’s son to shock him back onto the path of enlightenment
Synopsis of Poses Dedicated to Divine Creatures
- Peacock (Mayurasana): sacred national bird of India; associated with many Hindu gods
- Eagle (Garudasana): demigod (half man, half eagle); king of birds in Hinduism; Vishnu’s personal charger or live chariot; entreated to cure snake bites
- Fish (Matsyasana): first avatar or incarnation of Vishnu, the Hindu preserver god; demigod and hybrid fish-man who saved the progenitor of the human race from a cataclysm
- Tortoise/Turtle (Kurmasana): second avatar or incarnation of Vishnu; demigod tortoise who churned the Ocean of milk to make an elixir of immortality for Hindu gods and demons
- Lion (Simhasana): fourth avatar or incarnation of Vishnu; demigod lion who bolted from a pillar to disembowel a mocker of Vishnu worship
- Cow Face (Gomukhasana): sacred mascot and incarnation of Krishna who is the eighth avatar or human incarnation of Vishnu; Krishna referred to himself as “the wish fulfilling cow” whose milk is used in Hindu rituals to satisfy the gods
- Snake/Cobra (Bhujangasana): associated with spirit-snake power (kundalini) that is activated and elevated in the body by means of yoga; also associated with Patanjali, the sage who wrote the Yoga Sutras, who is depicted as a hybrid man-snake
- Crow/Crane (Kakasana/Bakasana): associated with a Hindu priest who ascertained an auspicious site for a Juggernaut temple by an occult oracle of a crow nosediving into the Bay of Bengal
- Rooster/Cock (Kukkutasana): general example of pantheism that informs yoga; “mystical realization” of pose content through animal imitation
1. Colleen Busch, “The Heroes, Saints, and Sages behind Yoga Pose Names,” August 28, 2007, Yoga Journal, http:www.yogajournal.com/article/history-of-yoga/heroes-saints-sages/.
2. Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, trans. Hariharananda Aranya and P.N. Mukerji (Albany, New York: State University of Albany, 1983): xxi.
3. Shiva Samhita: A Critical Edition and an English Translation, transl. James Mallinson, (Woodstock, New York: Yoga Vidya, 2007).
4. N.E. Sjoman, The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, 2nd ed. (New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1999): 49, 60-61, 103-105 [categorization and symbolic significance of poses].
5. Frederick Smith and Joan White, “Becoming an Icon: B.K.S. Iyengar,” in Gurus of Modern Yoga (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014): 134 [global clientele], 131 [body a mere container], 125 and 142 endnote 17 [religious narrative].
6. B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: George Allen & Unwin, 1979): 42, 514, 515, 517, 529 [quotes from intro and glossary of terms].
7. Alanna Kaivalya and Arjuna van der Kooij, Myths of the Asanas: The Ancient Origins of Yoga, (San Rafael: Mandala, 2010): 12.
8. Wikipedia, “Shiva,” last modified December 27, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiva.
9. Encyclopedia Britannica, “Nataraja,” last modified 2016, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Nataraja.
10. Wikipedia, “Tandava,” last modified December 27, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tandava.
11. Jason Birch, personal communication via academia.edu on March 31, 2016 [Shiva presiding deity over yoga].
12. ibid, March 12 and 29, 2016 [wrestling and yoga: who influenced whom?].
13. Frederick Smith and Joan White, “Becoming an Icon: B.K.S. Iyengar as a Yoga Teacher and a Yoga Guru,” in Gurus of Modern Yoga (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014): 122-146 [see pp. 125, 130-131, 134 on Iyengar; p. 142, endnote 16, on Hanuman; pp. ix-xi, 123 on Smith and White].
14. Wikipedia, “Hanuman,” last modified January 1, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanuman; Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, trans. Hariharananda Aranya and P.N. Mukerji (Albany, New York: State University of Albany, 1983): chapter 3 [occult powers].
15. Frederick Smith and Joan White, “Becoming an Icon: B.K.S. Iyengar as a Yoga Teacher and a Yoga Guru,” in Gurus of Modern Yoga (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014): 142 note 16.
16. Jason Birch, personal communication via academia.edu on March 29, 2016 [yoga possibly influenced by Indian martial arts].
17. Mark Singleton, The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, New York: Oxford University Press (2010): 179, 183, 186-190 [yoga experimentation and innovation]; 199-203; N.E. Sjoman, The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, 2nd ed. (New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1999), 60 [yoga possibly influenced by Danish gymnastics].
18. Jason Birch, personal communication via academia.edu on March 12 and 29, 2016 [lunging possibly borrowed from Indian martial arts].
19. East Scotland Iyengar Yoga Institute Newsletter, “Virabhadrasana,” February 6, 2008, http://www.eastscotlandyoga.org/pages/pdfs/Newsletter6.pdf.
20. Colleen Busch, “The Heroes, Saints, and Sages behind the Yoga Pose Names,” Yoga Journal, August 28, 2007, http://www.yogajournal.com/article/history-of-yoga/heroes-saints-sages/.
21. Karen Smith, “The Legends behind the Poses: Marichyasana,” rework of ESIYI article, January 8, 2009, http://myyogateacher.net/index.php?id=54.
22. U.S. War Department, Basic Field Manual: Physical Training, (Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, March 6, 1941): 186.
23. Niels Bukh, Primary Gymnastics, translated and adapted by F.N. Punchard and J. Johansson, (London: Methuen, 1925): 114, 119 [possible bases for modified side plank].
24. Wikipedia, “Vishvamitra [and Vasistha],” last modified December 25, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vishvamitra.
25. Colleen Busch, “The Heroes, Saints, and Sages behind the Yoga Pose Names,” Yoga Journal, August 28, 2007, http://www.yogajournal.com/article/history-of-yoga/heroes-saints-sages/.
27. Ronald Steiner & Team, “Vishvamitrasana,” International Info Page for Ashtanga Yoga,
29. Colleen Busch, “The Heroes, Saints, and Sages behind the Yoga Pose Names,” Yoga Journal, August 28, 2007, http://www.yogajournal.com/article/history-of-yoga/heroes-saints-sages/; Alanna Kaivalya, “From Myth to Pose: Exploring Astavakrasana […]”, The Kaivalya Yoga Method, 2016, http://alannak.com/resources/videos/myth-to-pose-exploring-astavakrasana.
30. ibid, Colleen Busch only.
31. TRS Iyengar, “Know about Sages—24 [Koundinya]” 2003-2015, https://www.trsiyengar.com/id279.shtml.
32. Yoga Journal, “Pose Dedicated to the Sage Koundinya II: Step-by-Step Instructions,” 2014, http://www.yogajournal.com/pose/pose-dedicated-to-the-sage-koundinya-ii/.
33. Shri Ganapati, “What is the Significance of Durva in Ganesh Pooja?” September 9, 2000, Sanatan WordPress sites, http://www.sanatan.org/en/a/69_durva.html.
34. David White, The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996): 222-223, 236-237 [“languishing”]; Colleen Busch, “The Heroes, Saints, and Sages behind the Yoga Pose Names,” Yoga Journal, August 28, 2007, http://www.yogajournal.com/article/history-of-yoga/heroes-saints-sages/; Lorin Roche, “The Mythic Story Cycle: Shiva and Matsyendra,” accessed January 14, 2016, http://www.lorinroche.com/yoga/yoga/matsyendra.html.
35. David White, The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996): 222-223, 236-237 [“Awaken!” and “yogic purification”].
36. Lorin Roche, “The Mythic Story Cycle: Shiva and Matsyendra,” accessed January 14, 2016, http://www.lorinroche.com/yoga/yoga/matsyendra.html [“the rejected child”].
37. Sanskriti Magazine, “Significance of Peacock Feather in Hinduism,” October 9, 2015,
http://www.sanskritimagazine.com/indian-religions/hinduism/significance-of-peacock-feather-in-hinduism/; Hemant Mangal, “What is the Significance of the Peacock Feather on Krishna’s Crown?” Quora, accessed January 15, 2016, https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-significance-of-the-peacock-feather-on-Krishnas-crown.
38. India Online Pages, “National Bird of India—Peacock,” accessed Arpril 3, 2016, India Online Pages, http://www.indiaonlinepages.com/national-symbols/national-bird.html; Pooja Gulati, “Why is Peacock the National Bird of India?” September 16, 2006, Times of India, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/1998572.cms.
39. Charles Coulter and Patricia Turner, Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2000): 187-188; Encyclopedia Britannica, “Garuda,” 2016, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Garuda; Sumanta Sanyal, “Garuda,” Encyclopedia Mythica, last modified March 29, 2005, http://www.pantheon.org/articles/g/garuda.html.
40. Erica Varlese, “Svadhyaya Spotlight: Garudasana,” Erica Varlese Yoga, June 9, 2015, http://yogalese.com/svadhyaya-spotlight-garudasana/.
42. Suzanne Newcombe, “The Institutionalization of the Yoga Tradition: “Gurus” B.K.S. Iyengar and Yogini Sunita in Britain,” in Gurus of Modern Yoga (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014):160-162.
43. Frederick Smith and Joan White, “Becoming an Icon: B.K.S. Iyengar as a Yoga Teacher and a Yoga Guru,” in Gurus of Modern Yoga (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014): 122-136, 142 endnote 17.
45. ibid, 136.
46. Charles Coulter and Patricia Turner, Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2000): 498 [Vishnu’s avatars].
47. Erica Varlese, “Svadhyaya Spotlight: Matsyasana,” Erica Varlese Yoga, June 18, 2015,
http://yogalese.com/matsyasana/; Wikipedia, “Matsya,” last modified September 19, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matsya; Charles Coulter and Patricia Turner, Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2000): 312.
48. Niels Bukh, Primary Gymnastics, translated and adapted by F.N. Punchard and J. Johansson, (London: Methuen, 1925) 103.
49. Charles Coulter and Patricia Turner, Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2000): 281; Wikipedia, “Ocean of Milk,” last modified January 5, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kshir_Sagar.
50. N.E. Sjoman, “Appendix VI: Maisuru Maisiri,” in The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, 2nd ed., (New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1999): 49, 60-61, 103-105 [raj becomes tortoise, 104].
52. Encyclopedia Britannica, “Narasimha,” 2016, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Narasimha; Charles Coulter and Patricia Turner, Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2000): 336.
53. Yoga Journal, “Lion Pose: Step by Step,” 2014, http://www.yogajournal.com/pose/lion-pose/.
54. N.E. Sjoman, “Appendix VI: Maisuru Maisiri,” The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, 2nd ed., (New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1999): 103-105 [raj becomes lion-god, 105].
55. Frederick Smith and Joan White, “Becoming an Icon: B.K.S. Iyengar as a Yoga Teacher and a Yoga Guru,” in Gurus of Modern Yoga (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014): 122-146 [see p. 125 Iyengar “resembles” lion god; p. 134, his “iconic status” as lion god].
56. B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga rev. ed. (New York: George Allen & Unwin, 1979): 136-137.
57. Wikipedia, “Krishna,” last modified January 26, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krishna#Kurukshetra_War_and_Bhagavad_Gita.
58. Bhakti Varaha, Gaudiya Samiti, and Gaudiya Sampradaya, “Holy Cow,” Bhagavad-Gita.org, 1998-2015, http://www.bhagavad-gita.org/Articles/holy-cow.html.
59. Rabi Maharaj, Death of a Guru: A Remarkable True Story of One Man’s Search for Truth, (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 1977, 1984): 70-71, 77-78, 81-85.
60. Catherine Ghosh, “Bhujangasana: the Fertile Snake of Consciousness,” reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, May 8, 2011, http://www.secretyoga.com/The_SEcret_YOga/Library/Entries/2011/5/8_Bhujangasana__The_Fertile_Snake_of_Consciousness.html.
61. Gregor Maehle, Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy (Novato, California: New World Library, 2006): 134-135 [myth of Patanjali as infinity snake].
62. Frederick Smith and Joan White, “Becoming an Icon: B.K.S. Iyengar as a Yoga Teacher and a Yoga Guru,” in Gurus of Modern Yoga (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014): 130.
63. Mark Singleton, Yoga Body (New York: Oxford, 2010), 29; James Mallinson, “The Original Goraksasataka,” in Yoga in Practice (New Jersey: Princeton, 2012): 258-272, esp. discussion of kundalini, Sarsavati, and Shakti 258-260, “The Stimulation of the Goddess” 267 and “The Ascent of Kundalini” 270-271.
64. Catherine Ghosh, “Bhujangasana: the Fertile Snake of Consciousness,” reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, May 8, 2011, http://www.secretyoga.com/The_SEcret_YOga/Library/Entries/2011/5/8_Bhujangasana__The_Fertile_Snake_of_Consciousness.html.
65. Myths Encyclopedia, “Juggernaut,” 2016, http://www.mythencyclopedia.com/Iz-Le/Juggernaut.html.
66. Sivananda Radha, Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language: Symbols, Secrets, and Metaphor, rev. ed., (Spokane, Washington: Timeless, 2006): 193 [crane cry].
67. Kelly Golden, “Pose of the Month: Bakasana,” Yoga Basics, 2002-2015,
68. Sandy, “Crow Pose (Kakasana) Crane Pose (Bakasana),” Better Day Yoga, September 29, 2011, http://betterdayyoga.com/home/crow-pose-sanskrit-term-kakasana-crane-pose-sanskrit-term-bakasana/1786.
69. Bron Taylor ed., “Yoga and Ecology,” Encyclopedia of Nature and Religion Vol. I: A-J (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2008): 1784.
70. Sivananda Radha, Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language: Symbols, Secrets, and Metaphor, rev. ed.,(Spokane, Washington: Timeless, 2006): 169-173 [“rooster symbol” 172; “herald of dawn” 173; “awakens the sun” 170].
71. N.E. Sjoman, The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, 2nd ed., (New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1999): 49 [secular description of poses], 60-61, 103 [mystical realization of a pose].
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