"Beyond Asanas" The Myths & Legends behind Yogic Postures
A teaser sample chapter, to set the tone.
Text by @PragyaBhatt - Photographs by Joel Koechlin @batmanonbatpod
The gods and sages of Hindu mythology are upright, hard-working, devoted to their meditations and focused on their purpose. Stories abound of them intervening to right a wrong, or to help a devotee in distress. However, they haven’t always been depicted as perfect. Their rage is also legendary and has often brought pain and sadness to the innocent.
Time and time again, they have punished others because their ego was hurt or because they felt insulted. However, as the following story shows, the gods were vulnerable to the emotions of love and pain, and could go to great lengths for them.
Avenging true love
The story of virbhadrasana involves the goddess Sati. Not too long ago, there was a custom (since outlawed) for a widow to end her life by walking into her husband’s funeral pyre. This ritual may have started from the actions of Sati, Lord Shiva’s first wife.
Sati married Lord Shiva against her father’s wishes. Daksha (Sati’s father) wasn’t keen on his daughter marrying an ascetic. He had hoped his daughter would marry a prince in a lavish ceremony and help him extend his influence and allies. Sati, instead, chose to marry someone who had no regard for social mores, and who was disinterested in the ways of the material world. Try as he might, Daksha was unable to change Sati’s mind, nor was Sati able to convince her father that Shiva was perfect for her.
When Shiva’s baraat (the marriage procession), reached Sati’s palace, Daksha and his queen were horrified to see it consisted of creatures from the netherworld! Lord Shiva himself was smeared with ash and had snakes wrapped around his neck—highly unsuitable for a future son-in-law. Sati saw her parents’ expression. Her mother was about to faint with terror.
‘Please manifest as an avatar more acceptable to them,’ Sati whispered to Lord Shiva. ‘I want my parents to remember this day as a happy occasion. I want them to be proud of you.’
At Sati’s urging, Lord Shiva revealed himself in all his glory. But only for an instant. This seemed to calm her parents down and they started smiling again. However, Daksha had only appeared pacified, but in reality, he was too proud to forgive Shiva’s antics.
One day, Daksha planned an immense yagna to which he invited everyone but Shiva and Sati. Sati believed it was an oversight on Daksha’s part and urged Shiva to accompany her to the yagna. Sati loved her father and was determined to go. Shiva remained behind.
When she got to the yagna, she realized it was a farce. There were no rites or rituals being performed, and the spirit of piousness was absent. Everyone sat around passing snide comments about her and her decision to marry an ascetic. To her dismay, Sati realized that Daksha did not come to her defence. She understood now that he was still furious that she had gone against his wishes to marry Shiva. She watched in disbelief as her father joined the others in ridiculing her.
Sati was shocked, saddened and angry.
‘All my life I have respected and loved you, father,’ she said. ‘I exist because of you. But your behaviour today makes me ashamed to be a part of you, to have come from you. I have a deep sense of loathing for myself now and I wish to be free of my mortal body.’ Before anyone could react, Sati stepped into the sacrificial fire of the yagna.
When Shiva learnt that Sati had ended her life, he was grief-stricken and also angry. So angry, in fact, that he wanted to pull his hair out. And that is exactly what he did. Shiva tore out a dreadlock and flung it to the floor in a frenzy. And from there arose Virbhadra. Shiva looked at the fearsome warrior, pleased, and bade him go to the yagna and destroy it.
The different variations of the virbhadrasana are inspired by the different postures that Virbhadra took when carrying out Shiva’s wishes. As he got ready to attack, he lifted his hands to the heavens (virbhadrasana I). When he arrived at the scene, he had both his hands stretched to the sides (virbhadrasana II). Finally, he took the position of virbhadrasana III to decapitate everyone at the yagna. Needless to say, there was unnecessary bloodshed, everyone was traumatized and Shiva’s wrath came to be feared by one and all. Finally, Daksha begged for forgiveness and Shiva relented. And lo and behold—Sati came back to life as Parvati!
Significance and symbolism
Daksha was never happy with his daughter’s decision to marry a man he didn’t approve of. Rather than honestly expressing his feelings to Sati, he hurt her by insulting her husband. His actions weren’t driven by concern or love for his daughter, but by a desire to avenge a perceived slight to his ego. Had Daksha been more accepting of Sati’s decision, or chosen a more forthright manner to communicate his feelings, the terrible events that followed could have been prevented.
We may not agree with the opinions, actions and beliefs of others, but we need to understand that everyone has a right to their opinion. In a situation of conflict, it is more fruitful to have an open discussion than to hold a grudge. To be hurtful and judgemental will not change anyone’s point of view. Carrying a grudge is futile and it harms only its keeper.
Virbhadrasana I (Warrior I)
Stand with your feet about four feet apart, toes facing forward.
Raise your arms, extending your torso upwards, and expand your chest.
Maintain this extension and turn your right foot out. The heel of the right foot should be in line with the centre of your left foot.
Now turn your torso so that you are facing the same direction as your right foot (For better balance, turn your left foot about fifteen degrees inwards). Square the hips and shoulders.
Bend the right knee and lower yourself until the right thigh is parallel to the floor.
Repeat on the left side.
Strengthens and stretches the legs, arms, hips and groin.
Eases stress out of the body.
Develops core strength.
Enables better breathing by expanding the shoulder blades and the chest.
Gives relief from sciatica pain.
Fixes misalignment of the feet, ankles and knees.
Therapeutic for flat foot.
Improves balance and posture.
Tones the abdomen.
Virbhadrasana II (Warrior II)
Follow the instructions for virbhadrasana 1 till step 3.
Extend your arms to the sides, drawing your shoulder blades away from each other. Your arms should be parallel to the floor.
Now bend your knee and lower yourself until your right thigh is parallel to the floor.
The right knee should be in line with the right ankle.
Repeat on the other side.
Virbhadrasana III (Warrior III)
Follow the instructions for Virbhadrasana 1 till step 4.
Keep your gaze fixed on a point and start to bend your torso forward. At the same time, lift your left leg until it is parallel to the floor.
In the final pose, your body should make the letter ‘T’ with the floor.
Repeat on the other side.
All three variations of the warrior pose require the knees to bend and the groin to be stretched, so don’t perform it if you’re recovering from leg or hip injuries.
Published by Penguin Random House India, available in paperback and e-book:
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