First, an “asana” is a physical posture in yoga. In truth and tradition it means “easeful seat”. We often call the physical postures by their sanskrit names. We may wonder, where do these sanskrit names come from? Why do you they have the names that they do? Behind each asana and its corresponding movements, there is actually an ancient story about a god, sage, or sacred animal, and how it got the name it has today!
Anjali and Namaste Mudras, are not exactly asanas, but they are more like energetic seals or symbolic gestures, commonly used in asana practice, in the beginning, during, and at the end. When we do this during our practice it becomes a touchstone for us to remember why we have come to our mat and what yoga means to us. Praying with outstretched hands in anjali mudra symbolizes the belief that whatever one is praying for will soon arrive. While doing this, one must have faith or “shraddha”. Over 2000 years ago, Vishnu ( the grand preserving force of the universe) noticed separateness in many who practiced yoga. Vishnu saw this and wanted to bring everybody together. He decided to send his liaison, Ananta, to bring the yoga groups together in one great practice.
Down on earth, there was a woman who could not bare children. This woman worshiped Vishnu and prayed every single day for the miracle of a child. She wanted this more than anything. As this woman would pray, she would hold her hands open to receive any that grace that may fall upon her. She waited, and hoped, and never gave up. One day, she was kneeling on her knees, with upturned hands, facing the sky, and Vishnu decided to let the grace of his grand serpent fall upon this woman. Into her praying hands fell baby Patanjali. Patanjali wasn’t any ordinary baby boy, he had a torso of a human, and the lower half of a snake. Despite his different body, this woman did not judge, she felt so blessed and began to love and raise this baby boy. Patanjali later grew up to be a great master of yoga. He united all of the different ideas about yoga, into one grand work, “The Yoga Sutra”. His Yoga Sutras outline several different methods for achieving ultimate happiness, or true yoga.
Namaste and Anjali are interchangeable terms for a similar gesture. Namaste is a sort of variation of anjali that helps us in our efforts to find a balance. When we end classes with this gesture and say Namaste, we are reflecting yoga’s end goal, which is joining everything, even opposites, and dissolving any illusion of separateness. Namaste means, the light in me honors the light in you.
Padmasana (Lotus Pose) is a seated posture, often used in meditation or at the beginning of a class, during centering. When in this posture, our feet are crossed on top of our thighs. This posture pins the thighbones to floor, creating a grounded seat and a straight spine. The lotus flower is a symbol for the yogi and is associated with the creative forces within us.
All over India, the lotus flower grows. Unlike many other flowers, the lotus grows in swamps and rivers. The lotus comes from humble beginnings. Its seed is planted in the muck at the bottom of a murky pond. The root of the lotus takes hold into this mud, and it starts to grow, searching for the sunlight above. The lotus knows it has to rise up through the murky water to catch the clearest of rays. Once this flower has reached the surface of the water, its blooming lotus makes sure none of its petals touch the water beneath it. It opens its beautiful, soft, pink petals and turns its face to the light.
Looking at this flower, no one would know that it came from such murky beginnings. The journey of this sacred flower reflects the journey of the yogi. We are rooted in the earth, absorbed by endless cycles of births, deaths, sickness, tragedy, celebrations and so on. The yogi knows this muck and as the dirt of “avidya” the great mistake of identifying ourselves with something other than our divine nature. Much like the lotus seed, we may feel stuck in this separateness, then by chance we may receive a little bit of wisdom or light and our journey begins. From there we move through the murky water of our limited understanding, and reach the light of wisdom. Just like this beautiful flower, we must surface the water and realize our full potential. We must know that struggle is part of the process, that will eventually result in beauty.
The padmasana pose, engages us in the higher yoga practices of concentration, meditation, and eventually samadhi, or enlightenment. By sitting in this position we are connected firmly to the earth and our roots, and our practice will grow, and our consciousness will begin to ascend. We sit tall, just like the lotus reaching through the water to bloom in the sun. We must always remember, humble beginnings do not prevent us from blossoming.
Vrikshasana (Tree Pose) is a standing balance on one leg. The foot of the lifted leg is placed on the inner thigh of the standing leg, and both hands are held above the head, palms together. In this posture, the legs represent the roots of the tree, the trunk of the tree begins at the trunk of the body, growing all the way up through the spine and arms, which are branches. This pose enhances stability and strengthens various parts of the body. While in Vrikshasana, we must also learn to keep our mind still; a still mind helps to keep the body still as well.
Since the ancient times, yogi’s have made the forest their favorite place for practicing yoga, as well as a home. The trees provided them with shelter, and food such as fruits and nuts. The forest also symbolized a pristine world that was conductive to a life of contemplation without material possessions. The shade beneath the tree was thought to be the best place for a student to receive spiritual knowledge from a teacher. Many yogis and sages lived in the forest where they built ashrams, usually consisting of simple huts among the trees.
The forest could also represent the world, the whole of creation. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna compares the world to a banyan tree with its many branches, where all species of life wander. We can also see that a forest is vital for the planet’s health. The leaves on the trees are the lungs, producing oxygen, while the roots retain rainwater and prevent the soil from eroding.
Vrikshasana, offers a beautiful opportunity to meditate on a tree’s inherent qualities. We can see that the tree is very tolerant. It even gives shade to the woodcutter who comes to cut it down. A true yogi freely gives the fruits of spiritual wisdom and love as generously as trees offer us shade, flowers, fruit, and wood. In this posture we use body, mind, and breath with the qualities of generosity, tolerance, strength, and balance.