Many of the asanas (positions) used in modern postural yoga are named after animals. It is believed that ancient yogis would go out in to the forest and developed these postures through observing and copying animal behaviour. Animals also played a key role in many religions and yogic mythology. In shamanism, it is believed that we can learn a lot from the animal kingdom by finding our guiding (totem) animal and studying its special features. Below are 10 common poses that are inspired by animals. Included are notes on the myths, symbolism and meanings associated with them as well as some benefits of the poses.
1. Cat – Cow / Marjaryasana – Bitilasana
Cat / cow is a common sequence of poses used together to warm up and stretch the spine. In India the cow is considered sacred symbolising love. Cows are associated with many gods, for example Krishna who was a cowherd and loved milk and ghee (clarified butter) that symbolised the essence of devotion and selfless motherly love. The Goddess Usha (dawn) rides a chariot driven by seven cows. Cats have been attributed many traits such as having nine lives, independence, cleverness, unpredictability and healing. The spine is of central importance to optional bodily functioning and maybe through preforming cat-cow regularly we can also have nine lives.
2. Downward Dog – Adho Mukha Svanasana
In Indian mythology the dog is associated with many gods. The earliest mention of the dog is in the Rig Veda, where Indra’s divine dog Sarama pursued and recovered the cows stolen by Indra’s enemy. Furthermore Bhairava (a form of Shiva) has a dog as his vehicle. Feeding and taking care of dogs is believed to be a way of showing devotion to Shiva. Dogs are associated with faithfulness and protection, but we can also reflect on their other traits such as the need to be playful, or protect our territory. Downward dog is a great pose with many benefits including stretching the back, calves, hamstrings etc.
3. Cobra pose / Bhujangasana
Few animals have held as much fascination, fear and respect as the cobra. It is regarded as custodian of buried treasures; the guardian of a secret subterranean world of strange mysteries. The earliest appearances of the snake is an amulet from the Indus Valley (3000 BCE) of an eagle flanked by a snake on either side. It was believed that those who worshiped snakes would not be harmed by them. The snake is associated with many deities – Ganesh wears one as a belt, Shiva in his hair, Vishnu reclines on one like a couch. The snake is symbolised as kundalini (the latent primordial energy of the universe) which can be awakened and travel up the spine to symbolised spiritual awakening. The ancient Hindu ‘churning of the ocean story’ features many mythical animals including a giant snake. In the American shamanism the snake served as a prominent symbol in art and lore and is associated with rebirth, resurrection, initiation and wisdom. Snake ceremonies involved learning to transmute poison, which is reminiscent of lord Shiva’s role in overcoming the deadly position by holding it is his throat – hence his name as blue throat. Cobra pose has many benefits including strengthening the spine, stretching the chest and lungs, shoulders and abdomen, and firming the abdomen.
4. Eagle pose / Garudasana
Garuda was the vehicle of Lord Vishnu (the preserver). The eagle is a bird of prey and has strong feet and talons. It is admired by many cultures for example it appears both on the US and Mexican Flag. Eagles are good at feeding themselves from the land but can also soar to great heights, symbolising the fact it is of the earth, but not bound by it The Eagle is associated with the soul, the spirit and resurrection. Eagles also have amazing sight and hearing. Garudasana helps improve balance and focus, and can help us learn to both connect to the earth, but also rise above it.
5. Camel Pose / Ustrasana
Camels are know for their ability to go for long distances without water, and adapt their environment, and are a symbol of perennial sustenance. They are patient and hard working and often symbolise love. The hump is the source of its almost infinite energy, which helps the camel survive in extreme conditions. The camel pose is an energising and heart opening pose. Its benefits include stretching the entire front of the body, the ankles, thighs and groins and strengthening the back muscles.
6. Crane pose
The crane is a symbol of love, fidelity, long life and marital bliss. On average a crane lives up to eighty years. They mate for live and in India are considered to be reincarnated beings who return to help other souls to achieve enlightenment. The crane is also a bird of the waters, and can help us to express our own feminine energies. The crane has a special significance in the epic Ramayana as the author Valmiki was inspired to write the story when he saw a hunter kill a pair of mating cranes. Rama only had one wife (unlike other mythological kings) and was therefore equated with the crane. Crane pose helps to strengthen, arms and wrists, and abdominal muscles and stretches the upper back. Like a long relationship it requires commitment and patience.
7. The splits / Hanumanasana
This pose is inspired by the monkey god Hanuman, and the leap he took to bridge the gap between India and Lanka to save the goddess Sita. Monkeys are said to have the special attributes of being childish, honest, fearless and dedicated. Indeed to preform this intermediate / advance level pose requires persistence and fearlessness. Its benefits include stretching the groins and hamstrings. This is a lovely hymn of 40 verses written by Saint Tulisdas praising and invoking Hanuman – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJGV9h2AZ0s
8. Dolphin Pose
In Hindu mythology the Ganges river dolphin is associated with Ganga, the deity of the Ganges river. The dolphin is said to be among the creatures which heralded the goddess’ descent from the heavens and her mount, the Makara, is sometimes depicted as a dolphin. The fact that dolphins are mammals but make their home in the sea is associated with the idea of life beginning in the primordial waters. Water is symbolic of creation, passion and sexuality. The dolphin has a rhythm to its breathing and to its swimming, and we can find this rhythm through the use of Ujjayi breath in our practice. Dolphin pose helps calm the brain and helps relieve stress and mild depression and stretches the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, and arches.
9. Bee or Brahmari Breath
Bees are often association with the ecological health of an area, and they provide an important service by pollinating flowers. They are hardworking and loyal to their queen. Bee breath is a lovely pranayama (breathing exercise) that can be used to calm a troubled or unquiet mind. It can help relieve anxiety and can be good for sleeplessness.
10. Lion’s breath / Simhasana
The lion is a symbol of power and majesty and is considered the king of animals in literature and art. In the Rig Veda and lion represents the strength of gods like Indra (god of rain and lightning) and Agni (goddess of Fire). Lord Vishnu is often depicted in his form of Narasimba who is half man and half lion. In shamanism lions have also be associated with feminine energy and the power of the female sun. This pose can help relieve tension in the chest and face. It also stimulates the platysma, a flat, thin, rectangular-shaped muscle on the front of the throat and helps to keep it firm as we age. According to traditional texts, Simhasana destroys disease and facilitates the three major bandhas (Mula, Jalandhara, Uddiyana).
Other animal inspired poses include Horse Stance, Salabhasana / Locus Pose, Kurmasana / Tortoise pose, Krounchasana / Heron Pose, Mayurasana / Peacock pose, Fish pose / Matsyasana, Pigeon Pose / Eka Pada Rajakopotasnaand Frog Pose / Bhekasana. As well as preforming particular poses we can also think about intimating animal movements (to invoke the energies of those animals) in our practice, for example being sensuous like a snake.
Sacred Animals of India by Nanditha Krishna
Animal Speak by Ted Andrews
Yoga Journal website