Beyond Asana: Teaching Mythology in Yoga Class

September 21, 2015    BY Zo Newell
yoga mythology

Myths are stories that help us to make sense of our world and connect our personal experience with the sacred. Yoga, too, is traditionally a discipline for connecting with the sacred through its different limbs of disciplining the mind, the breath, and the senses. While yoga’s poses are deeply rooted in Indian culture (including myth), modern yoga has come to be identified almost exclusively with its physical benefits. The connection between the individual psyche (which is actually the Greek word for “soul”) and the divine is ignored when we focus only on the body. For this reason, I like to introduce mythology into my yoga classes.

India's fabulous heritage of myth and cultural symbols is a largely untapped resource in contemporary yoga classes. But mythology is a less precise field than physiology; unlike asanas, which affect the bones, muscles, and alignment of our physical bodies in measurable and observable ways, myths work on our psyches in subjective and often invisible ways.

India's fabulous heritage of myth and cultural symbols is a largely untapped resource in contemporary yoga classes.

How can a teacher best introduce her students to yoga's myths and symbols in a way that will enrich practice? Here are some suggestions for starting class discussions about a pose, its stories and symbols, and its significance for each student.

I was fortunate to be introduced to yoga's stories by my first teacher, who was a walking compendium of India's epics and myths. The sight of a baby would remind him of an episode from Krishna's infancy. Or an argument in the ashram would recall a dispute between Shiva and Parvati. He would tell stories spontaneously, and laugh at how he saw these ancient themes played out before our eyes. His spur-of-the-moment storytelling taught us to look for connections between the great epics and our lives, and those stories threw light on our own dilemmas.

Few of us weave so effortlessly back and forth between daily life and the world of myth. Some asanas, however, just lend themselves to storytelling. You can pick one myth, or one asana, or a symbolic theme, and introduce it at the beginning or end of class.

For instance, before shavasana (corpse pose), set students up in viparita karani (inverted action pose). Tell them the tale of how the Ganges fell to earth, and invite them to imagine a river running in through their feet, down their bodies, and out through their fingertips. This works especially well because viparita karani is a pose that should be held for a long time—even as long as fifteen minutes. (Physiologically, it takes the body that long to enter into a deep state of rest. What comes after 15 minutes is the real state of pratyahara, where you remain with your senses withdrawn and mind quiet.) The story helps to keep students alert and tuned in to their bodies.

Or, perhaps near the beginning of class, you introduce a powerful story such as that of Virabhadra, and build your class around its related warrior poses (virabhadrasanas) and themes of protection and due respect for the divine.

In introducing your students to myth and symbol, it's good to start with familiar poses. 

Trikonasana (triangle pose) is a great entry point for a discussion about the significance of "threeness." For example, you can talk about the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, who personify universal creation, preservation, and destruction. Let the students consider that this threefold process occurs each time they come into a pose, hold the pose, and release the pose. Then have them do the pose (trikonasana). Ask: do they give equal attention to all three processes? Do they enjoy one stage more than the others? The Shiva Purana tells the story of a contest between Brahma and Vishnu to find the limits of the pillar of light that was Shiva, which (spoiler alert!) turned out to be endless. Tell your students this story, then repeat the pose, suggesting that this time they pay most attention to the “Shiva” stage—exiting the pose. How did that feel? Was it challenging to stay with the ending process and not rush on to the next thing? Other points to ponder: What else in life has beginning, middle, and end stages? Are these stages always clearly identifiable? Might you be staying in a life situation too long, or not long enough? How can your practice help you discern the appropriate action and then execute it mindfully?

Be sensitive to your audience.

Explore myths as psychologically revealing tools for personal growth, but avoid taking a devotional tone with students who tend to think of yoga as a workout (for example, I live in the southern United States, where many people still suspect that yoga is secretly a cult). Some students may fear that you are trying to convert them. Last weekend I offered a workshop in my South Carolina town, incorporating yoga, writing, and mythology. We had a great time, and several people had real “aha moments.” One participant told me afterward that she almost did not come because of her aversion to hearing about Hindu gods, and she was glad that my presentation hadn't upset her. I was glad, too.

Is it better to start with the story and then do the pose, or the other way around?

In a previous article that I wrote for Yoga International, I related vimanasana, “airplane pose,” to the story of Sita's abduction in the Ramayana. In that piece, I told the story before discussing the pose. In one of my yoga classes, I would probably begin with the pose, as it is more familiar to my students. And I might not tell the whole story if it’s complicated, but instead focus on one theme or one action that I think will be immediately accessible to my students. It’s important to teach to who’s in the room, and to remember that some classes will be more receptive than others.

Vimanasana is a relatively simple pose: a standing forward lunge with arms out to the sides, palms forward. It can be interesting to practice it in a series with other standing, arms-up poses such as the warrior series and urdhva hastasana (upward salute), with attention to the rotating actions of the arms and shoulder blades. But while you're focusing on your arm and shoulder blade actions, you can mention that Indian mythology speaks of flying vehicles, or vimanas, that could fly through the air and carry an infinite number of passengers—long, long before airplanes were invented. Maybe this image will help your students experience a sense of hovering or gliding when they go from vimanasana or warrior I into warrior III. It may be too much to go into the whole story of Sita's abduction by the demon king in his airship, but this much should be enough to start a conversation about what it means, symbolically, to leave the ground or fly.

The idea is not just to entertain your students with good stories, but to get them thinking symbolically. B. K. S. Iyengar said that the study of yoga is not about mastering posture; it's about using posture to understand and transform yourself. Myth, especially when paired with asana, is an entry point for your students into their inner worlds and their potential for transformation.

It’s not about conveying data to the students, but rather about awakening their creative sense of practice.

The question remains: how can a teacher best introduce mythology into class? There is no one answer. So much depends on the class itself and on the individual teacher. I was originally drawn to Indian mythology because I loved my teacher and he loved those stories. When I teach, I tend to choose stories or poses that are meaningful to me, that somehow appeal to my inner child and encourage my intuition and imagination to play. It’s not about conveying data to the students, but rather about awakening their creative sense of practice. The most important thing is for you to find and reflect on stories that bring energy and inspiration to your practice. If you love those stories, and you love sharing them, your students will be empowered to make those stories their own.

Zo Newell
Zo Newell, Ph.D., ERYT 500, was introduced to yoga as a child by Dr. Rammurti Mishra (Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati). She earned her Ph.D. in religious studies from Vanderbilt University in 2011, with a dissertation on goddess images as a unifying cultural symbol for India's emerging national identity. She is the author of the award-winning book Downward Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis (Himalayan Insitute, 2007). A former hospital chaplain and trauma counselor, Zo was a regular... Read more>>

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