The Gift of Myth


A recent article of mine in YI's “mythology and asana” series received the following comment:

The word 'mythology' means study of myths, i.e. false. We should not call it Hindu mythology, but Hindu tradition/scriptures/literature as reqd.

Thank you, opinionated reader, for raising an important point. In contemporary Western culture, “myth” has indeed come to mean something untrue, false, unsubstantiated. The media habitually uses this word to dismiss a point of view: “Gender equality is a myth,” “The border crisis is a myth,” “Global warming is a myth.” On occasion, scientific exploration may yield evidence that something once thought to be a myth (i.e., not true) is actually grounded in physical reality. For example, the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann shifted our understanding of the Trojan War from the realm of myth to the realm of history when he discovered the ruins of Troy. Today, there is ongoing debate about whether the NASA photos of a submerged “land bridge” apparently connecting India to Sri Lanka are or are not evidence for the Ramayana episode in which Lord Rama's army builds a bridge to rescue Queen Sita.

In contemporary Western culture, “myth” has indeed come to mean something untrue, false, unsubstantiated.

Indian literature embraces a genre known as itihasa, “it so happened.” This class of stories includes the great epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as the vast body of wisdom literature known as puranas. “Itihasa” is often translated to English as "mythology," but this term can confuse English speakers because we have so devalued our own mythic traditions that we understand “myth” to mean something that is not evidence-based, something not true. Our word “mythology” comes from the ancient Greek muthos, (“report, tale, or story"), but myths abound in every culture; they are stories, often though not necessarily related to that culture's religious system, which explain the nature of the universe, the origins of things, and how we human beings are to live in right relationship to the world in which we find ourselves.

Myths are teaching stories. Understood psychologically, the characters in a myth are symbols, aspects of our unconscious minds. Reflecting on those characters' choices and their consequences can provide insight into our own lives and choices by taking us below the surface of our usual personas and relationships and patterns of behavior. Myths widen our perspective, letting us see that the story is not strictly about us, but that it has broader, maybe even universal, importance.

A particular situation may not be of your own making, but thinking about it symbolically can be extremely helpful in calming anxiety and allowing for the expectation of a positive outcome. Shortly before Martin Luther King was murdered, he drew a parallel between himself as Moses and the people in the civil rights movement as the Israelites journeying through Egypt to escape slavery. In the story of the Exodus, Moses dies before the journey ends, but his people reach their goal, the promised land. This story gave Dr. King's followers a story in which his death, though tragic, did not predict the failure of their movement, but its success. This is the power of myth: it reveals a story's hidden, meaningful dimension.

In yoga, many asanas contain references to stories and symbols from itihasa, although many students may not immediately make the connections between the asana and the stories. Even if they don't, asana is a valuable tool for seeing the connections between how we are on the mat and how we are in our lives. Each asana lets us observe ourselves in a particular process or situation, and to notice: How do I approach the problem of, say, tight shoulders? If an action is difficult, do I trust that there is a way to make friends with the difficulty, or am I angry or frustrated? Do I look for someone to blame for my frustration? Do I feel that my body, or the teacher, or the pose, is an enemy or a potential friend? What narrative about myself or the universe do I tell myself in a situation of this kind?

Sometimes there are clues in the name of the asana itself. The very name of “happy baby pose,” although an intense hip-opener for some, suggests a playful, nurturing approach to your practice and to life. “Fire log pose,” another hip-opener, recalls the care and precision needed both to build a fire and to stack your shins and knees safely.

In personal practice, we can turn to myths to help reveal the wisdom hidden in our minds and bodies.

However, I am convinced that understanding the stories and symbols—the mythology—associated with asana allows for an even deeper and richer experience of the pose. By writing about “mythology and asana,” I certainly don't mean to suggest that there is anything “false” about yoga practice; on the contrary, I would insist that asana and myth are twin paths to wisdom and insight. In personal practice, we can turn to myths to help reveal the wisdom hidden in our minds and bodies. When we discover the connection between personal practice and myth, we become able to receive mythology's gift of symbolic insight into our personal challenges.

For more on mythology, asana, and self-reflection through journaling your practice, please see my 2007 book, Downward Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis.

About the Teacher

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Zo Newell
Zo Newell, Ph.D., ERYT 500, was introduced to yoga as a child by Dr. Rammurti Mishra (Sri Brahmananda... Read more