Today’s blog was written by Whitney James, a KAY kid who is now a freshman at Elon University.
While we don’t always use Sanskrit in our kids’ classes, many of the asanas in modern yoga practice come from the backstories of Hindu deities. This doesn’t mean that we “worship” these gods, nor does it mean that we practice Hinduism. However, kids (especially teens) love hearing the stories of the poses and often feel more powerful when practicing them with this knowledge. Some of the more common yoga poses with interesting backstories are: hanumanasana (monkey pose/front splits), garudasana (eagle), natarajasana (dancer), and matsyandrasana (fish).
Hanuman is the son of the wind (Vayu) and is known as the monkey king. He has the head of a monkey and the body of a human. Hanuman has the amazing ability to grow to the size of a mountain or shrink to the size of a bug. In the battle of Lanka, Hanuman jumped all the way from India to Lanka to comfort the captives. His back leg propelled him forward from India, and his front leg stretched out to reach Lanka’s shore. And once, when a friend was injured in battle, he picked up an entire mountain by its roots, and leaped back across the water to the battlefield to let the physicians heal him. After that, he leaped back across the water again to put the mountain back where it came from. Hanumanasana (monkey pose) illustrates the giant leap that Hanuman took across the water through the front splits. Encourage children to be the monkey king by having them leap from mat to mat!
Garuda is half eagle and half man, the king of birds who can move at the speed of light from one world to another. When he hatched, he had a huge appetite, so his dad sent him to a village to find food. The god Vishnu saw him searching for food and asked if he would like to sit on his arm and eat his flesh! When Garuda took a bite of Vishnu’s arm, he was amazed because Vishnu showed no visible marks. Garuda pledged his lifelong devotion to Vishnu and often provided rides to Vishnu. When practicing Garudasana with children, pretend to land in your nest by getting smaller and smaller while still in the pose.
Nataraja is the dancing form of Shiva, one of the gods responsible for the cycle of life. He’s also known as the Lord of the Dance or King of Dancers… the ecstatic cosmic dancer. Shiva is often portrayed in a circular frame, representing the cosmic fire that creates and destroys everything on Earth. He has fire in one hand, which also represents the importance of destruction and creation, and the other hand is wrapped with a snake and gesturing with a “fear not” mudra. He holds an hour-glass shaped drum in his 3rd hand, representing the time and rhythm of music and the universe, and his 4th hand points towards one of his raised, dancing feet, drawing attention to dance, being uplifted, energy, and strength. Natarajasana is fun to practice with a partner. Stand face to face with your buddy and stretch your hand forward to grasp your partner’s hand. Balance while imagining the power you contain within you!
Matsyendrasana refers to Matsya, an incarnation of Vishnu. Long ago, the earth was corrupt and about to be completely flooded, so Vishnu turned himself into a fish named Matsya. He carried the Hindu sages to safety in a boat, ensuring the preservation of their wisdom and of mankind itself. Just as Matsya re-balanced the earth and the ocean, practicing Fish pose can reestablish focus and give you resiliency. It also lifts your heart and lightens your mood. When practicing Matsyendrasana with children, encourage them to sit up tall and make fishy faces (and be sure to practice both sides). Use other ocean-themed poses to imagine Matsya’s travels through the sea: dolphin, turtle, boat, etc.