Humans are not the first to practice yoga. Animals have been stretching, focusing their minds and living a simple and rewarding life for millions of years. Have you ever seen a dog or a cat stretching? Do you realize how flexible the back of a snake or a scorpion is? Did you know that monkeys and bears stretch, too? Animals are at one with nature and grounded, and live simple lives.
|Karina performing the Bat Pose|
Ancient truth seekers took refuge in the forests of India, away from the world. In their quest for wisdom, they turned to their neighbours, the animals. They soon discovered that some of these animals were very wise. They began to imitate them, and a new spiritual path was born, that of Hatha Yoga. They started to sit like frogs, to stretch like dogs, snakes or scorpions, to hold the shape of a fish, of a quiet turtle, of a drinking deer, of a rabbit, or of a resting crow. As they gained strength, health and peace, they recognized the wisdom of the animals. They bowed to their masters and kept walking on that path.
Some started to imitate cows. They ate grass and lived a peaceful and stress-free life alongside their new companions. Other sages spent a great deal of their lives with monkeys, birds or even snakes. They had visions of their past lives, saying "Once I was a cow, and once a tiger, once a dog and once a crane, and behold, I see your past lives, too, you also were once this or that animal." As they learned, they eventually realized 2,000 or 3,000 years before Darwin that we were evolving from animals. And even more than that - they realized we have been these animals. And it is the same for all those around us, they said. Your neighbour has been born many times as an animal, and your father, your son, your grand-daughter, your best friend, too.
The experience of the Buddha Gautama is probably the best-known. He sat down under a tree and focused his mind to remember what had happened a few seconds before, and then took his mind back a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, a few weeks, a few months, a few years…He eventually reached back to the age of three. He was stuck there for a while but then, patiently, he started to see what was beyond, in a different, less visual way. He later reached his own birth. He first thought that he could not reach any further down, but a bigger picture soon started to unfold in front of his peaceful heart, another life. He kept applying the same technique, remembering all that had happened, and saw another life and yet another life, hundreds of lives. Jataka is the title of the book that talks about 500 of his lives. In that book, we learn that before becoming Buddha, Gautama was reborn many times as an animal. We also see some of his friends and followers sharing the same fate, in one life or another. Like the prince, they too had once been animals.
|Rooster, Kukkutasana & Peacock, Mayurasana|
After living the life of a cow or the life of a swan, sages realized that it was not a proper existence for a whole human community. They thought, "In this life, we are humans, we are not cows or birds, we cannot live like them," (see Bhagavad-Gita, 18, 47). "However, we can pick up some of their good habits, and devise a system of healthy living."
This system is Hatha Yoga. This explains why more than 20% of the asanas are named after an animal and also why yogis use a lot of animal comparisons. Sages were inspired by animals. In a yoga class, one is asked to perform poses such as the Downward-Facing Dog, the Cat, the Crow, the Lion, the Bat, the Camel, the Scorpion or the Snake.
The most common animal poses are Shvanasana, the Dog; Bhujangasana, the Snake; Shalabhasana, the Locust; Kurmasana, the Turtle; Markatasana, the Monkey; Kraunchasana, the Heron; Garudasana, the Eagle; Vrishchikasana, the Scorpion; Kukkutasana, the Rooster; Gomukhasana, the Cow (face); Shardulasana, the Tiger; Matsyasana, the Fish; Kakasana, the Crow; Bakasana, the Crane; Godhikasana, the Lizard; Ashvasana, the Horse; Karandavasana, the Duck; Bidalasana, the Cat; Simhasana, the Lion; Mayurasana, the Peacock; Chakorasana, the Partridge; Mandukasana or Bhekasana, the Frog; Bhallukasana, the Bear; Tithibhasana, the Firefly; Shashasana, the Rabbit; Mrigasana, the Deer; Jatukasana, the Bat; Hamsasana, the Swan; Makarasana, the Crocodile; and Ushtrasana, the Camel.
In other words, animal wisdom has been and still is a precious source of inspiration for yoga. One-fifth of all the asanas come directly from either the stretches or shapes of animals. Animal poses help us maintain a healthy body and a balanced mind. They also help us to remember that we are still part of nature and that animals are our friends, our fore-fathers and our children. How could we ever hurt our friends and our children? And knowing that we are indeed part of nature, how can we keep polluting the land, the air and the oceans, as we have been doing for the last couple of centuries?
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