Book Review: Myths of the Asanas – the Stories at the heart of the Yoga Tradition by Alanna Kaivalya & Arjuna van der Kooij

Book Review by Marcus J Freed and

One of the ongoing questions for Jewish yoga practitioners, and particularly those teaching within some kind of religious setting, is how to feature the Hindu aspects of yoga? However we tell the yoga story with regards to its development pre-dating formal Hindu practice, there is still a vast amount of Hindu storytelling within the very names of the yoga postures. We need look no further than Marichiasana (seated twist) and Hanumanasana (splits) than to see the names of Hindu gods. So, what can we do about it?

One possibility is to embrace it. Why not? Jews are a people of stories and it makes sense to occasionally use stories even if they are from another culture, as it can help deepen our understanding of the universal teachings.

In Myths of the Asanas, the authors Alanna Kaivalya and Arjuna van der Kooij go through various yoga postures and tell the stories behind their names. Trikonasana, Triangle pose, is connected to the idea of ‘sacred trinities’, such as birth/life/death  and earth/space/heavens (no, they don’t mention **the other** trinity. Keeping it strictly kosher here).

Importantly, the triangular aspect of Triangle Pose is evident, as the authors explain that ‘the three angles of a triangle make it one of the strongest and most stable shapes in nature’ and how we can take this stability into our yoga pose and into our life (p36).

They go on to tell a story about a powerful demon called Mahishasura who is eventually toppled by a goddess known as Durga and Mahamaya. “A fierce warrior, Mahamaya and her trusty lion lunged at the evil demon….In Sanskrit the words maha maya mean the ‘great illusion’”(p39.). In something that reads similar to a Rabbinic midrash, they draw out the lesson that ‘only when we break through the veil of maya do we reside solely in our divine nature. So when performing trikonasana, it’s helpful to meditate on the solid foundation that we need in order to live a sattvic life and leave the world of maya behind’ (ibid).

There are lessons here for all cultures and we can indeed use this source material when teaching yoga and bringing in spiritual lessons from our own culture. A Jewish approach might be to take this teaching and explain the nature of the nefesh and neshama (aspects of the soul) and how we can tap into our true, eternal nature rather than getting trapped by the illusory nature of this fleeting world (what King Solomon termed hevel hevelim or vanity of vanities.

The myths of the asanas are many, and this book is a useful resource that goes towards unraveling the mythology.