The Mythology Behind Hanumanasana

February 9, 2015    BY Zo Newell

Hanuman, the vanara (monkey) superhero, is said to be the son of the wind, Vayu, and a vanara woman, Anjana. This unusual genealogy gives him a special kinship with both the world of the spirit and the material world. Throughout South Asian culture he personifies the qualities of physical strength, bravery, and spiritual devotion. Hanuman and the vanara people play a vital role in the epic Ramayana as the means of reuniting Queen Sita with her beloved Rama.

As son of the wind, Hanuman was known for his mighty leaps. Two of his most famous leaping exploits are associated with the battle of Lanka. In the first, Hanuman leapt the distance of one hundred yojanas (one yojana is traditionally defined as the longest distance traveled by sound of a call from a tall place), shore to shore, from India to Lanka, to comfort the captive Sita. With a force that made the sand fly and the waves run backward, he stretched his mighty legs.

As son of the wind, Hanuman was known for his mighty leaps. Two of his most famous leaping exploits are associated with the battle of Lanka.

The power of his back leg propelled him skyward, while his front leg re-e-e-ached to touch Lanka's shore. Hands clasped as in prayer, he held Rama’s ring to his heart. When he found Sita sitting sadly under a tree guarded by demoness sentries, he stealthily delivered the ring and the news that Rama was on his way.   

Later, Rama’s brother Lakshman fell in battle, mortally injured. The herb to restore him grew far off in the Himalayas. “Go, Hanuman!” said Rama, “we need another one of those leaps of yours. The herb grows on the…” But Hanuman was gone. Before Rama could finish his sentence, the vanara-superhero stood on the mountain, surrounded by herbs and plants. Oh, which one was it? Where did Rama tell him to look? He rushed from plant to plant, but soon realized: “I don’t know! I’m a monkey, not a doctor! Oh, I’ll just take the whole thing and let the experts sort it out.” And he picked up the mountain by the roots, and holding it carefully over his head so he didn't spill anything, he made a flying leap back to the battlefield where physicians stood ready. “Thank you!” they said to Hanuman. “Now, please put that mountain back where you found it.” And, with another formidable leap, he did, while the herbalists healed Lakshman's wounds.

The Full Pose

Hanumanasana is a full front split. It takes practice, and possibly some support, to find steadiness and ease in this pose. (Remember Patanjali’s injunction from the Yoga Sutra: Sthira sukham asanam, "Asana should be steady and comfortable.") Once your hips, shoulders, and groin are sufficiently open:

Kneel on all fours, as if you were going to lift up into dog pose. Place your hands on the floor or on blocks. Bring your right foot forward between your hands; pause. Stretch the right leg forward and the left leg back. Press your legs into the floor, and bear weight through your arms and hands. In the full expression of the pose the back of the right thigh (up to the hamstring attachment) is on the floor, and the front part of the left leg (up to the groin) is on the floor. Press the top of the back foot into the floor, actively spread the toes of the front foot, and stretch out through both legs evenly. Lift your rib cage. Exhale, and bring your hands to “namaste” (prayer) position in front of your heart.

Continue to lift up through your rib cage as you bring your arms overhead. Broaden your upper shoulder blades. Stretch your outer collarbones toward your inner arms, and lift your sternum. Keep extending up through your arms as you join your hands overhead.  

Now imagine a tail extending from the base of your spine. (Not all monkeys have long tails, but Hanuman does.) Lengthen your "tail," from the coccyx (tailbone) to the tip, as if it were streaming out behind you from the force of your leap. Lift up through the crown of your head. Create maximum length in your spine.

Don't harm yourself trying to do the full, unsupported pose just because it looks cool.

This is a challenging pose. Recall the yamas of ahimsa (nonviolence, Yoga Sutra 2.35), satya (truthfulness, Yoga Sutra 2.36), and asteya (non-stealing,Yoga Sutra 2.37). Honestly, how open are your hips? Remember Krishna's advice from the Bhagavad Gita, that it is better to perform your own dharma (or in this case, your own asana!) imperfectly than to try to perform someone else's (Bhagavad Gita 18.47). Don't harm yourself trying to do the full, unsupported pose just because it looks cool when B. K. S. Iyengar or the student in the front row does it.

To Modify

Place a mat on the floor, and a bolster horizontally across the mat. On the floor in front of the mat (not on the mat), place a single-folded blanket. Kneel with your left knee behind the bolster. Bring your right foot to the front edge of the bolster, on the blanket; your heel may touch the bolster, but the sole is on the blanket. The blanket is here to help you slide that right leg foward when the time comes. Take your hands to the bolster on either side of the hips. Have blocks handy in case you want more height.

Stretch your left leg back, so that it rests on the mat above (not on) the kneecap. (The back knee will be bent, like a low lunge). Rest your left thigh against the back edge of the bolster. Now slide your right leg forward, pulling the toes back toward your face as you go; the blanket will help you slide your heel along until the leg is straight. The back of your right thigh will now rest against the front edge of the bolster. The front of your left thigh will touch the back edge. Press both thighs down. Fold your hands in “namaste” position. Hold for a few breaths. Then raise the arms overhead, separating the hands.

Work both legs evenly. Draw the back hip forward and the front hip back to level the pelvis. Lift your rib cage and heart. Look up, keeping the back of your neck long.  

To come out, lower your arms, take the weight back into your hands, and switch sides.  

Reflections

Where do you strive in this pose? In your eyes? Your tongue? Your neck? Your breath? Your legs? Where is the ease? Is it all right with you if your pose is less than perfect?

Can you give yourself fully to an endeavor and keep your heart open? The Bhagavad Gita tells us to make our best effort and leave the results to God (2.47). Hanuman models this when he abandons his search for the herb and instead brings back the entire mountain. He recognizes what he can and cannot do, and as a result, Lakshman is saved. How do you know when you have done what you can do and it's time to leave the result in God's hands?

Can you give yourself fully to an endeavor and keep your heart open? The Bhagavad Gita tells us to make our best effort and leave the results to God (2.47).

Hanuman will do anything for Rama, but he cannot do everything. How important is it to you to “get it right”? Does your desire to do your best ever slide over into perfectionism?  When you are in perfectionist mode, are you perhaps doing violence to yourself?

Hanuman leaps to help someone: to comfort Sita, to bring medicine to Lakshman. He “jumps the gun” in his leap to the mountain, and must fetch the entire mountain so someone else can identify the right herb. Have you ever been so eager to help that you actually complicated your task?

Although Hanuman is a superhero, he is most revered for his devotion and service. We emulate him when we offer our greatest strengths and most spectacular talents in the service of our highest ideals. What is your personal equivalent of Hanuman's leaps? What do you love as he loved Rama?

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>>