Myths and Asana
One of the hidden benefits of teacher training is the amount of time we have to study yoga postures (asanas) on more than one level. In classes, we focus mostly on the anatomy and alignment of poses – learning where to put our feet, for example, or which muscles to engage to create these shapes with our bodies – and this is an important part of how we learn postures in teacher training because it creates an environment of safe accessibility for the students.
There is more to these moves than just muscle though. In training, we have time to spend with each of the asanas, and this gives us the chance to understand them on a deeper level. First, we can learn to detect and appreciate the energetic effects that result when we enjoy the physical practice of yoga; and, second, we have the opportunity to investigate the origins of these forms through the mythology that accompanies the long history of the practice. These two factors bring a new dimension to the experience that speaks to the inner work we do in yoga – that of expanding our consciousness to recognize our own connection to the larger forces of the universe. That’s a pretty big undertaking, but the work inward is made easier when we approach it through the vehicle of story.
The power of stories is profound because they help us to understand ourselves and our place in the world using universal themes and metaphors. Myths are those stories we generate to explain the origins of things, or to offer lessons and insights about being a human in this world. They are filled with symbols and allegories, and when we uncover these subtle aspects within the world of yoga postures, we create a closer connection to their purpose which is far greater than lengthening the hamstrings or balancing on the hands.
We can find a wonderful example of this when we look at Bhujangasana or Cobra Pose. This prone backbend is meant to represent a cobra rising up and spreading its hood, and for most of us, this is an image that can evoke some fear. When we examine one of the myths associated with this posture, though, we begin to understand that the snake is a symbol of power and protection.
The story begins as the Buddha is meditating under the Bodhi tree seeking his awakening. After weeks of meditation, his energy becomes so powerful that many animals and creatures gather around him, and among them is the King of Serpents. The rainy season comes, and still the Buddha sits in meditation. Realizing that the heavy rains might disrupt this deep concentration, the king of serpents slithers behind the Buddha and rises up, opening his hood and spreading it like a canopy of protection. Buddha, unaware of the rains, the animals, and even the king of serpents continues his meditation eventually achieving enlightenment.
As we practice Bhujangasana with this story in mind, we come to understand that the snake need not be feared because it is a symbol of our own protective mechanisms. We use our strength to rise up and protect our efforts to grow and fulfill our potential just as the king of the serpents rose up to protect the Buddha as he sought his true nature.