Anjana is remembered among other things as the mother of Hanuman. Hanuman, the superhero of the epic Ramayana, was a member of the Banar tribe. Opinions differ as to whether the Banar (or Vanar) people were literally monkeys or were perhaps forest dwellers whose clan symbol was a monkey. There are several accounts of Hanuman’s origins: Some say he was an incarnation of Shiva; others, that his father was Vayu, the wind; one story even makes him a half-brother of Lord Rama, conceived when Vayu offered Anjana, Hanuman’s mother, a spoonful of the magic payasam (milk pudding) given to Rama’s mother. Still, everyone agrees that he was Anjaniputra, Anjana’s son.
And who was Anjana? One tradition says she was a Banar woman who lived in the forest and performed tapas. Tapas, one of the niyamas (the five self-directed observances outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra), means “burning effort” and involves strict control of, and ultimate mastery over, the mind, body, and senses. In other words, Anjana was a yogini, and the pose bearing her name honors the power of her practice. Another account makes her an apsara, a female cloud-spirit, or nymph, who came to Earth and married a Banar king so that she could become the mother of the hero who would serve Lord Vishnu in his incarnation as Rama. Apsaras are famously beautiful, young, sensual, and elegant. Associated with the Gandharvas, the celestial musicians, they entertain the heavenly court by dancing to the Gandharvas’ music. They often marry Gandharvas, and occasionally humans, but only Anjana is thought to have allied herself with a Banar.
Anjaneyasana is a deep lunge. It provides a powerful stretch to the groin, quads, and iliopsoas of the back leg. The front leg receives a different but still deep stretch, along with strength work.
To come into this pose, from downward facing dog or hands and knees, step your right foot forward into a low lunge (alternatively, you can also come into the lunge by stepping your left leg back from a standing forward fold). Position your right knee directly over your right ankle, creating a 90-degree bend in that knee (you may find that you need to scoot your other leg back a little bit to find this alignment). Lower your back knee to the floor and rest the top of your left foot on the floor, toes pointing straight back (not sickled, which is when weight shifts onto the pinky side of the foot causing the foot to make a crescent shape). (You may find that it feels good to practice this pose with a folded blanket underneath your back knee for extra cushioning/support.) Keep your hips facing the short front edge of your mat.
Bring your hands up onto your front thigh, and press down into your thigh, perhaps feeling a corresponding engagement in your abdominals. Lift your ribcage (not just the front but the entire ribcage) away from your pelvis. Lengthen the back of your neck as well: Imagine a tiny airbag between the top of your cervical neck-spine and the base of your skull. Inflate that airbag.
Now, pressing your toes and top of your left foot into the floor, shift your weight forward, beginning to bend your right knee past your right ankle. Engage your right hamstrings in (the back of your right thigh) to draw the calf and thigh closer together. Press your right heel firmly into the floor. If you feel any strain in your front knee, sneak the foot forward until the leg is in a right angle again.
Now reach your arms up alongside your ears, palms facing each other. Continue to lift up through your low belly. Take a deep inhale and, as you exhale, stretch your legs apart from each other and lengthen your spine even more as you broaden and lift your chest and extend up through your fingertips. Keep your neck long; imagine that your neck starts between your shoulder blades. Let your head tilt back naturally, without crunching, as the spine lifts. Raise your eyes to heaven.
Stay for five breaths. Feel the grounding of your feet—the top of the left foot and bottom of the right firmly planted on the earth—and the lifting of your heart and hands toward the sun. Soften your eyes. Smile. Keep your hands active and receptive. On your next exhale, lower your arms and change legs.
Practicing with the back thigh supported by a bolster can help with balance in this pose.You can lean your back thigh against it and use it to support some of your weight that would otherwise be on the front leg as you come more deeply into the lunge. You can also use the bolster’s touch to sharpen your awareness of the front hamstring contracting.
To practice this variation: Place a bolster across the center of your mat, perpendicular to it. Start kneeling behind the bolster and step your right foot forward over the bolster until the right knee is positioned directly over the right ankle. Adjust the bolster so that one of its long edges just touches the middle of your left quad. Leaning on the bolster for balance, if necessary, adjust your back leg so your weight is just above the kneecap—not squarely on it—and then place the top of your left foot on the floor.
Depending on the length of your torso and arms, your fingers or palms may be able to touch the bolster when your arms hang straight down from your shoulders. If your arms are short, you can place blocks on top of the bolster. You can also extend your arms up alongside your ears to explore the backbend variation.
To change sides, place your hands back on the bolster if they are lifted, and using them for balance, switch legs.
Note: If you are fairly deep in your lunge and are using a thick/high bolster, your front buttock and sitting bone may touch the bolster.
Remember, you are the best judge of what works for your body. Do adjust the height of your prop as needed, reducing it gradually as your hips become more mobile by replacing the bolster with two folded blankets or possibly a block, and then one blanket, until you are comfortable without any support.
Either variation of this pose can serve as a great preparation for hanumanasana (monkey pose), in which the front leg is straight rather than bent. Think of it as the “mother” of hanumanasana, just as Anjana is Hanuman’s mother.
Feel the joy of stretching, the power of your legs, the lift of your chest, the strength and aspiration in your arms and hands. Find the balance between grasping for something and raising your hands in wonder or worship. Keep your face and eyes soft and confident. Enjoy the feeling of being deeply grounded even as you rise.
Are you pushing more deeply into this lunge than is truly comfortable? Is there as much space in your joints as you would like there to be? Are you comfortable with respecting your own limitations? Does anything about this practice feel risky? How does more deeply grounding the back thigh and front sitting bone help you lift your spine?
Do you enjoy using props? Do you secretly think it’s better to do without them? Does accepting support from the blocks or a blanket or bolster make you feel you are cheating or not a good student? Does it enhance your practice to feel something holding you up, or do you experience it as an unnecessary bother? Does that attitude apply to your feelings about emotional support?
Think of Anjana’s origins. She was a cloud-woman, a spirit of the heavens, like an angel, who married a Banar man on Earth in order to give birth to the hero Hanuman. For a very good cause, she gave up her life as a heavenly dancer in the divine court. What “heavenly” parts of yourself have you given up in order to effect necessary change in the world? Conversely, can you identify any ways that grounding yourself more deeply in the body or in the world have helped “lift” you spiritually?