Esoteric Asana Names
As we have seen in a previous article entitled 'Animal Wisdom', some asanas are named after animals. Other asanas have the name of an object, of a form, of a sage, etc. And some asanas have the name of a god. In this article, we shall have a look at this last group of poses. To simplify things, I shall use some short stories drawn from various sources, including the Veda, the Mahâbhârata, the Râmâyana, the Shrimad-Bhagavatam and the Shiva-Purâna.
Brahma is the first god mentioned in the Rig Veda. His name means 'the Supreme', he is creator of the universe and is recognised as the ancestor of all. In the same text he is also called 'Prajapati', the Lord of Creatures. In later texts, he is sometimes called the 'Grandfather' and he also has another name - Viranchya. The pose called Viranchyâsana is therefore dedicated to Brahma. In this pose, the yogi is seated on his buttocks with one leg behind his head and hands clasped behind the back (like in Gomukhâsana).
Like most of the other gods, Brahma has a wife - her name is Saraswati. She is the most beautiful of all and as such, the goddess of beauty. Since beauty generates arts such as poetry, painting, carving, music, etc., she is also the goddess of arts. As Saraswati invented Sanskrit and the sciences, she is also the goddess of knowledge and is worshipped by students and intellectuals.
Another very important god mentioned in the Vedas is Vishnu, currently the most popular god in India. There are several poses dedicated to his avatars. (An avatar or avatara in Sanskrit is a human or animal incarnation of Vishnu). Vishnu is the protector of the world. Each time the world is threatened by the forces of darkness, he takes the body of an animal or a man and comes to its rescue. Among his most famous avatars, three have their own asana. Trivikramâsana, the standing split, commemorates his incarnation as a dwarf. When a demon conquered the universe, Vishnu took the body of a dwarf and presented himself to the demon with a request: he wanted to possess whatever he could cover with three ('tri' in Sanskrit) steps ('krama'). The demon laughed and accepted. With the first step, the dwarf covered the entire earth; with the second he covered the underworld; and with the third he covered the realms of the gods, thus regaining the whole universe. The standing split in Uttânâsana is called Adhomukhatrivikramâsana (downward-facing Trivikramâsana), the reclining split is called Suptatrivikramâsana, and the bound standing split is called Baddhatrivikramâsana.
The two other avatars are the most well-known. The first one is called Râma, whose story is told in the Râmâyâna and whose pose is Râmâsana (see photo). Since this is a difficult pose, we often practise only the half-version, or Ardharâmâsana. The yogi has one knee on the floor while holding the foot of this same leg in his hand. The other leg is also bent, but with the foot on the floor. The other hand is on the second knee, or this arm can be stretched towards the ceiling.
The second very popular avatar is called Krishna. His story is told in the Mahâbhârata and in the Shrimad-Bhagavatam, and his asana is Krishnâsana - a side plank with the lower leg behind one's head and the upper arm stretched towards the ceiling.
At the end of the world, Vishnu rested on Ananta, a divine god that has the form of a snake (see image) and whose name means 'infinite'. He is famous in yoga because it is said that Patanjali, the author of the 'Yoga Sutras' (the classical text of Râja-Yoga), is actually an incarnation of that god taking birth as a human to teach yoga to mankind. Anantâsana is the pose dedicated to Ananta.
|Vishnu supported by Ananta with his wife Lakshmi & Brahma seated on a lotus flower|
Vishnu's wife is named Lakshmi. Like Sarasvati, she is very beautiful and is adorned with lots of jewels around her neck and limbs. She is the goddess of wealth, highly respected by all businessmen - from the rich industrial who owns half of India to the poor shopkeeper who sells only betel nuts. When she is Râma's wife, she is called Sîtâ and when she is Krishna's wife she is called Râdhâ.
Shiva is the god that taught hatha-yoga to men for the first time and also has many poses dedicated to him. Legend has it that about 1,000 years ago, he first taught yoga to a mere fisherman he later called 'Matsyendra', 'Lord of the Fish'. (see article on the Goraksha-Samhita). Shiva is known as the destroyer of the universe (while Brahma is its creator and Vishnu its protector). He is sometimes known as Natarâja, the Lord of the Dancers, and the corresponding pose is Natarâjâsana. When Shiva shows a more female, positive face, he is known as Vâmadeva ('Vâma' meaning left or female). A pose called Vâmadevâsana is dedicated to that aspect of the lord of yoga - a side plank with the legs in a split. There is another aspect of Shiva that is both male and female - his tantric manifestation or 'Bhairava'. 'Bhairavâsana' is the dedicated asana of that form. In a reclining position, the yogi has to place one leg behind the head, keeping the other on the floor. Another one-leg-behind-the-head asana is called Kalabhairavâsan, which is done in the table position. Ugrâsana, another pose dedicated to Shiva, is a kind of Pashchimottânâsana, with the feet hip-distance apart and forehead on the floor.
Shiva's wife is named Parvati, daughter of Parvata, who is also known as 'Himâlaya'. Parvati lives with Shiva at the top of Mount Kailash. She is exquisitely beautiful, arousing desire in the god of ascetics himself - a feat that no other being could achieve!
Another famous god is Kâmadeva, the God of Love. He is one of the most powerful gods, able to possess any living being he wishes, including other gods! Of the men and gods who feel his presence, only a few can bear his burning arrows without reacting. Among these few, Shiva is the most well-known.
To conclude, I would like to introduce two other asanas that we practise almost every day. One is the split (see photo of Karina) and the other is the lunge with a back-bend. The split is called Hanumanâsana in memory of Hanuman, a devotee of Râma in the Râmâyâna who later became a popular god himself. For those not yet able to do the full split, there is a half-pose called Ardhahanumanâsana. One knee is on the floor (the upper leg forms a 90° angle with the floor) and the other leg is stretched forward. Hanuman's mother, 'Anjaneya' lends her name to the lunge pose, which is sometimes present in the sun salutation.
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