Mind Your Yoga History & Culture

What’s in a name?


The primary goal of classical yoga is to bring concentration and stillness to the mind. A focused mind and a peaceful and positive feeling are vital requirements as well as by-products of an effective asana practice. Yoga should not be for the body alone. Mental focus as part of asana practice is an entrée to the meditation that follows the asanas. Without mental focus, asanas are just an exercise for the body; the mind is disengaged and vagrant.

Such an asana practice will not effectively lead to meditation. Practising the true aim of yoga — to calm and control the mind — does not require a knowledge of Sanskrit. Being familiar with many Sanskrit names, such as those for yoga postures does not, in and of itself, indicate that a person is practising authentic yoga. Proper understanding of the principles and practice of yoga is more important. The fundamentals of the practice of yoga came to us many centuries ago in the Sanskrit language. But the methods and benefits of the practice transcend language and culture.

Naming asanas

This raises the issue of naming asanas in order to practise them. The Caraka Samhita — the classical work on Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine) — advises the healer not to despair if a name cannot be assigned to every disorder encountered; treatment can still be administered. As yoga practitioners and teachers, we can follow this advice: “We do not have to name each of the numerous variations of classical asanas, in Sanskrit or in any other language, to practise them.”

Many variations of asanas are easier practised or described than named — especially in Sanskrit. What’s in a name? Yoga poses are named in various ways. Some are named after animals and birds, some describe the body’s position in an asana, and some are named after mythological figures. Some asanas are named after ancient sages or derive from mythology, with uplifting stories behind them. For instance, Bharadvajasana is named after the sage Bharadvaja; visvamitrasana is named after the sage Visvamitra.

Bhagiratasana is another. It is widely known as “tree pose”(vrkshasana). My guru, the legendary Yogi of the last century, T. Krishnamacharya used to call the tree pose Bhagiratasana. Bhagirata was supposed to have meditated for several years standing on one leg! Krishnamacharya used to say, “When doing Bhagiratasana, keep the great Bhagirata in mind. Bring tireless perseverance and steadfast concentration to your practice.”

Consider the warrior pose, Virabhadrasana. This is an example of an asana name that suggests the psychological feeling that can accompany the practice. Virabhadrasana is an assertive stance that can produce an energetic feeling. While doing the warrior vinyasa, Krishnamacharya recommended that we bring into our mind a feeling like that of a bird. This is particularly appropriate in the devotional tradition of Vaishnavism, in which a principal devotee of the Divine, in the form of Lord Narayana, is depicted as an eagle named Garuda. The eagle Garuda also functions as a vehicle, bearing Narayana on his back. “As you do the Virabhadrasana vinyasa,” Krishnamacharya would say, “keep in mind that you are in the service of the Divine. As you extend your arms and look down, bring the feeling that you are above the world and its various concerns but close to the Divine.”

What if a practitioner has no religious beliefs?

Still, the imagery is valuable. Instead of thinking of the Divine, a practitioner can bring the feeling that ‘I am without any fear or burden. I am not troubled by the future or the past, flying above worldly pressures.’ In yoga, we work with our minds to ensure that the internal results are in our hands.

A.G. Mohan and Dr. Ganesh Mohan are yoga practitioners and authors of several books

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2021 11:11:42 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/whats-in-a-name/article23759801.ece

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