This piece was born of a curiosity about the origins of yogic postures named after animals: bidalasana (cat), shalabasana (locust) and adho mukashvanasana (downdog), to name just a few.
They’re poses I’ve been doing for years, and though I’ve made personal connections to them – “light as a crow” when lifting my feet into bakrasana, embracing the elegant movements of the cobra in bhujangasana – at this point in my practice, creation is a central question. From where did these postures spring?
Of course, humans have quite a layered history with animals. We’ve played both prey and predator in the ancient game of the hunt. We’ve learned from and been inspired by animals since the beginning of our existence on this bubbling little earth. By weaving animals into our mythologies and songs, car names and sporting mascots, we haven’t a category in our anthology that doesn’t somehow include our fellow breathing beings on this planet.
Perhaps this inquiry invariably has no feasible proof or scientific conclusion. And I’m cool with that, if you are. But I can’t help but wonder: what came first, the posture or the animal inspiration?
Shalabasana ~ Locust Pose
It would stand to reason that yoga, a practice of internal balance and health, could inspire the practitioner to move into an impromptu posture without any external stimuli. Perhaps the posture came first.
Imagine being a spiritual ascetic, full lotus in a forest or cave, far from the village bustle. The dread-haired practitioner meditates in a thick glowing silence. Before, perhaps after meditation, they’d perform a series of postures to keep the body lithe and strong. Being so isolated from most of society, and so tuned into the body, surrounding nature, and whatever epiphanies follow, the stage is set for an expression of animal form.
As the jazz flautist, quantum physicist, or any passionate master in a field could tell you, when you’re in a groove, something else takes over, and the resulting creativity has an effect like a drug. For some it feels like a connection, the full presence – or absence – of being, transcendence, attuning to grace, expressing Truth, riding the wave of creativity, maybe even something so powerful, we dare to call it Divine.
And in this state, I imagine these yogi ancestors followed an instinctual flow into crazy legs bhekasan pose (frog) or even mayurasan (peacock) – enough to attract the attention of any passer-by! And they’d do this by simply feeling their way into a position. Like some of us do in our modern day caves, on sticky green mats, somewhere between errands and jobs.
But what if some of our animal-infused ideas have actually sprung forth from some deeper, more primitive layer in our brain structure? Would it surprise you to know that the modern-day brain sitting in your human skull is actually built upon reptile and monkey brains? It may sound more like a science fiction movie than a statement of fact, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Your brain, and every homo sapien noggin out there, consists of three very distinct layers, indicative of the major developments in our cerebral evolution. And according to the Scientific American, ‘human intelligence may be best likened to an upgrade of the cognitive capacities of nonhuman primates rather than an exceptionally advanced form of cognition.’
So we’re actually part lizard? In a manner of speaking, yes. And good lord, does that explain some of our most unsavory behaviours! Taking care of that nasty ‘fight or flight’ response, the need for food, the drive toward reproduction and overall survival, including breathing, heart beat and body growth, this oldest part of the brain is pretty damn raw. It’s been evolving for about 285 million years and we share it with every other spine-sportin’ creature out there.
Ever wonder why getting a promotion can feel like a bloody boardroom battle? Ever tell an inebriated couple at a bar to ‘go get a room?’ Blame it on the instinctual, the automatic, the Lizard Brain.
Next evolved the mammalian brain by adding new functions and new ways of controlling the body including digestion and fluid balance, as a few key examples. But this part of the brain also creates a store of experience-based memories and recognition of danger, as well as some conscious feelings about events (in the amygdala). Feelings such as attachment, anger and fear begin to emerge with associated patterns of care, fight or flight. The very feelings for which yogic and Buddhist practices provide ample management tools.
Thankfully, about eighty five percent of our brain is made up of the neocortex, the grey matter, the part of our brain that enables us to behave like human beings – though what that means is open to debate!
So maybe some of these postures, some of their more primal and intuitive aspects, simply come from the parts of our brain we’ve been evolving atop of for so many millions of years.
Going back to our ascetic …
So what would happen, on that rare occasion, when a peacock scurried through the brush, or peeked into the cave? Isn’t it possible that whether consciously or not, these ancient yogis simply observed a dog stretching after a long nap, and realized, “Ooooh, that’s gotta feel good!” Cue natural imitation – monkey see, monkey do!
Animals portray physical traits like grace and cunning in their purest form. But have you ever been at the zoo and noticed that look on the monkey’s face bears some strange resemblance to the comedian you saw on TV last night?
Or maybe the interactions of mother and baby panda send such spine-tingling maternal instincts through you, the tears actually puddle in the corners of your eyes. The mind being so dominated by the ego, when we look at animals we often see reflections of our own characteristics and traits. This phenomena is called anthropomorphism – we sometimes even attribute our own traits to those of our pets.
“Oh Mr. Pickles, he’s such a little gentleman!”
Animals conjure up connotations of characteristics so specific, the mere association paints more than an impressionist rendition of the subject.
“Have you met Sarah yet? Man, she’s a real cougar!”
And we all know, from one short phrase, that Sarah’s likely an older woman who hunts (or simply ends up with) much younger men. Her personality is probably very different from Sherry, who’s more of a deer in headlights, if you know what I mean! Fit as a horse, a dog of a boyfriend, having an eagle eye, or being a bit of a snake. All these animal metaphors speak to a powerful connection.
From Animal to God to Yogi
A great many of these asanas aren’t simply named after animals, but after animal characters in Indian mythology, speaking to characteristics we value and see personified through animals. Although some religions (Islam, Judaism), scholars, and philosophers find objections to anthropomorphic deities, Hindus do not reject the concept of God in the abstract unmanifest. Anthropomorphism is actually used as a tool to help humans conceptualize ‘God.’ As noted by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, religion uses icons, murtis, to assist humans in fully understanding ‘God.’ The theory being, our burden of being bound by the senses will often get in the way of spiritual connection.
Embodying the Mythical
One of the most well-known individuals in Indian lore is the Monkey King, Hanuman the brave. Physically gifted and valiant at heart, Hanuman is above all else devoted to the Lord Rama, avatar of Vishnu. In an attempt to rescue King Rama’s one and only love, Sita, from the wicked hands of Ravana, Hanuman jumps across an entire ocean to infiltrate enemy headquarters. When Hanuman rips open his chest, we see Rama and Sita – the very objects of his devotion in the cradle of his heart.
The message: take a leap, a leap of faith, a leap into the great unknown, and pay homage to whatever divine resides in your heart!
In Hindu ceremony, worship of the lesser god Garuda, King of the Eagles, detoxifies the body of all poisons, while in Buddhist scripture, the worship of predatory birds ignites intelligence and social organization. In this pose, no matter how bound you may feel, on the mat or off, the message here is to fly as a king under any circumstance.
So what came first, the animal or the pose?
Well, most animals have been here for a lot longer than we have, and it’d be incredibly egotistical to ignore their ancient presence. And though some poses simply resemble the aesthetic of their animal namesake – matsyasana, the fish pose, or vrkshasana, the scorpion – like anything in life, we can draw a meaning, significance, or history from the subject, and guide our practice deeper than the physical level, to the intellectual, psychological, and even the spiritual.
A few more poses to play with . . .
Kurmasana (Turtle Pose) – Adorable! Become the turtle, peeking its head and limbs out from your protective shell – and work off some hip and tummy fat while you’re at it!
Rajakapotasana (Pigeon Pose) – Love, love, love this pose! Heart opening, hip opening, absolutely liberating, in any depth of its expression.
Ushtrasana (Camel Pose) – Um, be the hump? Not sure just what the animal inspiration is here, but intermediate and advanced practitioners will experience an expansive feeling in the hips and chest. Great preparation for some of the more circus-style backbends!
Makarasana (Crocodile Pose) – Who me? Just hangin’ out. Waitin’ for my prey to swim by … !
Sashankasana (Rabbit Pose) – Burrow yourself way down deep, like a bunny in its warm little abode. This pose is great for releasing tension in the spine and strengthening the tummy muscles.
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For the book “Metamorphosis”, visit the Tara website!