Symbolism in Yoga

When most people think of Yoga, what comes to mind is the physical practice of asanas or postures as a form of exercise. Too often, even with experienced students, the asanas are practiced with this singular thought in mind. Asanas have the potential to expand into a devotional practice, which, like all spiritual practices, bring us closer to an understanding of truth.

The most common reason students give for taking a yoga class is that they are seeking a relief from some musculoskeletal problem, or that they want to learn how to relax. However, those who stay with they practice inevitably begin to make certain discoveries. First they often do feel better physically. They begin to breathe and move more freely. Their state of mind changes, their concentration improves, and they become more alert, more fully alive. Gradually the student begins to get a glimpse of an aspect of self beyond the physical, mental, emotional levels – a glimpse of the truth about this entity called “myself.”

Each asana affords certain physical, physiological, and psychological benefits. Beyond this there also lies a mystical or spiritual meaning. Each asana creates a certain meditative state of mind. But why specific positions and names?

The positions, when properly practiced, utilize the full and natural range of movement of the human body. They promote efficient functioning of the internal organs, balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and create an optimum state of health and well-being. Asanas are based on a sound knowledge of human anatomy and physiology. Yogis knew that placing the body in certain positions would stimulate specific nerves, organs and glands. For example, the shoulder-stand posture causes the blood to be directed by gravity to the thyroid gland, and the tucking in of the chin causes a gently squeezing action on the gland, which is great for stimulation of the gland.

Postures named after animals (fish, peacock, crow, eagle, tortoise, etc.) and nature (tree, mountain, etc.) remind us that we are connected to all creation. There is no “lower” animal kingdom, or a higher human one, but rather each one of us is past, present, and future, all at once. Cats, for example, are experts in relaxation. On awakening from sleep, they instinctively stretch, arch the spine in both directions, and then soften again before moving. Through the practice of replicating and recreating the movements and structure of animals and nature we can begin to embody the wisdom of their teachings.

In many parts of the world the symbolic meaning of animals is widely reflected in mythological beliefs. All of the symbolic images are pregnant with power within our lives. By engaging in their symbolism we are also engaging in the great unknown. This is done through the creation of a symbolic gesture of body, mind and breath, which then can build a bridge between the aspects of self and the source of energy, which creates and sustains them.

Take for example eagle pose. When we think of eagles often it is the image of one soaring through the air as an expression of freedom. However, the pose in yoga is one that is very constricted and tight. The legs wrap around each other while standing on one foot and the arms interlace and spiral upwards. It’s contained and often very constricting for practitioners and students alike. Rather than the pose reflecting an expression of a flying eagle it is instead one that is perched… patient and steady…looking with “an eagle eye.” The symbolism here teaches us to be focused, disciplined and strong. For some the ability to trust that they contain these qualities is too far reaching. It may be easier to invoke the qualities of an eagle to be expressed through them rather than searching for something within that they may feel they do not posses. Over time, the symbolism of the bird gets layered into their own matrix and builds their inner self-confidence and strength.

So, the next time you’re in a yoga class and you find yourself either loving or loathing a particular posture begin to observe a little deeper its meaning. See if you can move beyond the physical sheath of the body and begin to dive into the more subtle yet equally important sensations that come from our layers of emotion, imagery, energy and timelessness.