Once upon a time in ancient India, an unorthodox young god named Shiva fell passionately in love with a spirited young woman named Sati. Sati’s father, Daksha, was a hard-headed, egotistical man and fiercely disapproved of his daughter’s choice. Defying him, Shiva and Sati wed in a romantic ceremony and went to live among the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas.
To spite them, Daksha organized a grand and lavish sacrificial ceremony in his palace, with glorious melodies of Vedic chants, fragrant garlands of jasmine, and sumptuous aromatic dishes made with the finest spices. He invited princes, gods, goddesses and dignitaries from near and far, but intentionally excluded Shiva and Sati.
Shiva was indifferent to his father-in-law’s self-centred antics and had no interest in the event, but Sati, determined to win her father’s respect, insisted upon attending without an invitation. Unfortunately, she arrived at the ceremony only to be faced with a tide of derogatory sneers and insults from Daksha. Overwhelmed with anguish, humiliation and pain, she resolved to no longer be associated with the earthly body her father had given her. She sat down, retreated deep within herself and began to practice fierce yogic breathing, which violently ignited her inner fire and engulfed her body in flames.
Devastated and enraged by the news of Sati’s tragic death, Shiva ripped out his hair and created Virabhadra, a fiery gigantic warrior who carried terrifying weapons and embellished his body with snakes and skulls. Virabhadra dove into the ground toward the ceremony. Once there, he broke through the earth holding his sword above his head (Warrior I) and met Daksha’s frightened gaze. He then took his aim (Warrior II) and brought his sword down into a fatal blow (Warrior III).
Although this story seems dramatically violent and far from the inner peace and serenity that yoga promotes, the underlying message is very important. Lord Shiva represents the Higher Self; Sati represents the Heart; and Daksha represents the Ego and all its ramifications, such as anger, impatience, maliciousness and arrogance. As human beings, we all fight spiritual battles with our egos and practicing the Warrior Sequence is essentially practicing control and triumph over those negative vibrations by virtue of our pure hearts.
Andrea is a lifelong practitioner and certified Teacher of Yoga from the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram in Kerala, India. As well as being the founder, creator and author of Body Mind Light and a Brand Ambassador for yoga clothing lines, she also teaches private classes in Sivananda Yoga in Toronto, Canada.
Goraksha & Matsyendra Just as Plato and his protégé Aristotle are celebrated as wellsprings of Western philosophy, teacher Matsyendra and his student Goraksha are sometimes refereed to as the revered of hatha yoga. It’s fitting that Matsyendrasana (Lord of the Fishes Pose) is a spinal twist. "Twisting poses symbolize revolving the front body, or what is conscious, to the back body, the subconscious," American Yoga College's Rama Jyoti Vernon says. "They bring light into darkness and the dark to light, a process essential to yoga." It's easy to imagine the first hatha yogis discovering these physical forms as they experimented with purifying the body to liberate the mind. Matsyendra appears to have been an actual historical person, not just a figure of myth. Born in Bengal around the 10th century c.e., he is venerated by Buddhists in Nepal as an incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. As with most Indian myths, there are many versions of the story of Matsyendra's metamorphosis into a realized adept—and all of them illustrate the radical transformation that yoga makes possible. In one popular version, the infant Matsyendra is thrown into the ocean because his birth has occurred under inauspicious planets. Swallowed by a giant fish, he overhears Shiva teaching the mysteries of yoga to his consort Parvati in their secret lair at the bottom of the ocean. Matsyendra is spellbound. After spending 12 years in the fish's belly, all the while exploring yoga's esoteric practices, he emerges as an enlightened master. Matsyendrasana is one of the few asanas described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 14th-century text, and the deep twist is familiar to most Western yoga practitioners today. Fewer Western yogis are likely to practice Gorakshasana, a difficult balance in which the practitioner stands on his knees in Lotus Pose. But in yogic lore, Goraksha is often considered the more influential of the two adepts. Matsyendra's chief disciple, Goraksha reputedly came from a low caste but at a young age devoted his life to renunciation and teaching. The story of his birth exemplifies his humble beginnings and may explain his devotion to his teacher. According to legend, Goraksha's mother—a peasant woman—prayed to Shiva for a son, and the god gave her magical ashes to eat that would enable her to become pregnant. She failed to understand the boon, however, and threw the ashes on a dung heap. Twelve years later, Matsyendra heard of the promised child and visited the woman. When she confessed she'd thrown the ashes away, Matsyendra insisted she revisit the dung heap—and there was 12-year-old Goraksha. Goraksha came to be known as a miracle-working yogi who used his magical powers to benefit his guru. At one point, he assumed a female form to enter a king's harem and rescue Matsyendra after the teacher had fallen in love with a queen and gotten sidetracked from his spiritual life. Goraksha's name means "cow protector" and may just refer to his humble beginnings. But in India, the light of consciousness is thought to be embodied in cows—even those that can't magically fulfill wishes. As with Matsyendra, "Goraksha" may not be simply a name but rather a title honoring the yogi's spiritual attainments. "Metaphorically, Goraksha's story says that when something in life doesn't look like what we want, we often cast it aside. But in the most discarded thing can be hidden the greatest blessing," Vernon says. And, as with the tale of Matsyendra, Goraksha's life story underscores our potential to awaken despite all sorts of obstacles.
Fathers have never much liked being outsmarted by their offspring. In most cultures, any evidence of a son's arrogance can get the son into deep trouble with his father. Astavakra's tale contains classic elements of the intergenerational tensions that show up even—or perhaps especially—in the realm of religion and spiritual practice.
What makes Astavakra remarkable is that he crossed the line with his father, and was punished, before he even left the womb. While still in his mother's belly, he corrected his father's recitation of verses from the Rig Veda, a collection of India's oldest and most sacred hymns. Enraged, Astavakra's father cursed him, and the boy was born deformed. Astavakra's name refers to the eight (asta) crooked (vakra) angles of his limbs; the many angles of the pose Astavakrasana evoke the curse of crooked limbs that Astavakra triumphed over by dint of his persistence, piety, and intelligence.
Despite his father's cruel curse, Astavakra remained a faithful son. When the boy was 12, his father lost a priestly debate and was banished to the watery realm of Varuna, lord of death. Although the journey required a monumental effort, Astavakra traveled to the king's court to challenge the man who had bested his father. Because of Astavakra's unsightly shape, the people at court laughed at him—but only until he opened his mouth and they discovered he was incredibly learned and deeply insightful, even though he was still just a boy. Astavakra triumphed in the debate, winning his father's freedom, and people who once mocked him became his disciples, including the king.
Astavakra's story illustrates the human tendency to judge things by their appearance rather than by their true substance. It is also a reminder of the power of steadfast faith to triumph over ridicule and misunderstanding. According to yoga teacher Aadil Palkhivala, "Astavakrasana appears to be very difficult, but actually, it's one of the easiest of arm balances if you just know the technique. What the pose is trying to tell us is that even when things seem extremely convoluted, if you just know how to arrange them, your situation is not as arduous as it looks." While some poses are designed to make us work hard, others, like Astavakrasana, are actually designed to teach us to work less. "This asana requires more knowledge than effort," Palkhivala says. "It is not a fighting pose; the primary feeling in it is a sense of freedom."
-Yoga journal online