Vasisthasana is the name for Plank Pose. This pose strengthens the arms and core. The variant is side-plank: balancing on one arm, the other reaching triumphantly straight up into the air, conveying the pride and joy of balancing on one arm and one leg.
According to Wikipedia, legend has it that Vasistha (Sanskrit for excellent) was the inventor of the Vasisthasana Pose. He was amongst the oldest and most revered pre-Buddha sages. He wrote many texts in verse on all topics and is the subject of many legends such as Vasistha and His Divine Cow Kamadhenu who could grant his owner any wish.
Vasistha wrote a medieval era encyclopedia composed between the 7th century and the 11th century, consisting of 383 chapters. Vasistha appears often in historical Hindu texts, representing a character who mediates conflicts and builds bridges between opposing ideologies. He is described as having long hair neatly tied at the back, a beard, a moustache and a tilak on his forehead (a marking made from sandalwood paste).
This pygmy three-toed sloth, Bradypus Pygmaeus, is seemingly vaunting his accomplishments as he mimics yoga practitioners in Side-plank Pose (Vasisthasana).
Of note: the pygmy sloth is native to a small island off of Panama, Isla Escudo de Veraguas. It lives in the mangrove trees that line the Island’s shores. It is known for its very slow movements and its great swimming ability. Green algae grow symbiotically on its fur, and this camouflages the sloth within the foliage. Its tough hide, strong grip and remarkable resilience for healing, all contribute to its survival, although habitat destruction is a threat.
Having seen the photo of the pygmy sloth in Side-plank Pose, my Vasisthasana Pose is forever changed. When I assume this pose, I chuckle to myself, because I think of the above photo.
No doubt that Vasistha would have also enjoyed the photo.
The Warrior Poses are great for strengthening and stretching the back and the legs. As well, these postures increase focus and concentration and confidence. When one assumes the Warrior poses, one is proclaiming: “I am strong, I am proud, I am determined, I am courageous.”
Note that for Warrior 1 the hands are clasped above the head in the Kali Mudra position, the hand gesture for fearlessness as becomes the warrior. And for Exalted Warrior, the elevated hand assumes the Gyan Mudra position, the hand position for focus. Warrior 3, where the practitioner is poised on one leg, is a feat of balance. This pose is streamlined and suggests a missile or rocket-ship, unstoppable and determined.
And the meaning of Virabhadra? Wikipedia informs us that in Hindu mythology Virabhadra was the most powerful Warrior God, created by the ruler of the universe, God Shiva. The legend is told that Daksha disapproved that Sati, his daughter, married God Shiva. When Daksha refused to invite Shiva to an important ceremony thereby insulting him, Sati set herself on fire and committed suicide. Shiva reacted with intense anguish, and created Virabhadra from a lock of his hair. A variant version recounts that Virabhadra was created from Shiva’s perspiration mixing with the earth. Virabhadra was a giant whose body reached to the heavens. He had an animal tail, three burning eyes, fiery hair, and was as lethal as tsunamis! Thus Virabhadra came into existence as Shiva’s invincible bodyguard and thus the naming of the Warrior Poses.
Hasta Mudras, (Sanskrit for Hand Gestures) are hand positions held during Meditation, during Yoga and Indian classical dance. There are over one hundred of them and each represents a positive behaviour or attitude. In Yoga, when assuming the hand position, the practitioner is meant to concentrate on the quality that the mudra represents, thereby building his neural networks for this quality, a kind of rehearsal for positive thoughts leading to positive actions. I love that there is so much meaning in each hand pose and that the meaning is conveyed in a universal way (silent without language). Mudras are elegant, poetic, mysterious, streamlined and profound!
Following is a list of some of the popular Mudras with explanations, all representing qualities to aspire to and to cultivate.
Kali Mudra (Kal is Sanskrit for the black one beyond time): this mudra represents fearlessness and courage and it is my favourite mudra. Kali was the supreme Hindu Goddess who protected the innocent and vanquished evil forces. She bestowed liberation. She is pictured as blue- or black-skinned with three red eyes (signifying past present and future), with dishevelled hair, with sometimes up to 10 arms. Serpents accompanied her. She is shown standing on her husband, the Hindu god Shiva, who lies calmly beneath her (an early feminist?).
Gyan Mudra (Sanskrit for wisdom): this mudra symbolizes focus and concentration, the evolution from ignorance into wisdom, darkness into light.
Abhaya Mudra (Sanskrit for fearlessness): this mudra is for developing courage and peace. When Buddha is pictured using both hands in this position, it symbolizes him “calming the oceans”.
Varada Mudra (Sanskrit for forgiveness): this mudra engenders generosity and compassion, and is often combined with the Abhaya Mudra for the right hand while the left hand is held in Varada Mudra. Imagine fearlessness, generosity and compassion all in one: great aspirations!
Prana Mudra (Sanskrit for life force energy): this mudra is for increased energy, clearing the blockages in the energy pathways, an energy pick-me-up.
Dhyana Mudra (Sanskrit for meditation): this mudra represents composure and balances the two sides of the brain for equanimity. The joining of the two thumbs symbolizes the union of the yin female and the yang male.
Rudra Mudra (Sanskrit for howler or terror): is for healing and energizing, this mudra promotes empowerment.
Padma Mudra (Sanskrit for lotus): symbolizing loving kindness, this mudra represents a full-blossoming lotus flower.
Hakini Mudra (Sanskrit for power): the mudra for control of one’s mind, for imagination and intuition, named after the Goddess Hakini who personified the energy of the third-eye chakra.
Namaste Mudra (Sanskrit for ‘I bow to you’): the mudra for peace, promoting one soul honouring another and recognizing our inter-connectedness.
Performing this practice optimized for 19-year-olds, I feel 19 again. And remember my own teenage years.
High school wrestling! Three times a week, our team would drill intensely. Running on the spot, defend – kick legs back and hit the floor, scissors reverse, back to standing, kick legs back, hit the floor, roll forward left, stand, etc… Learn new moves, drill the ones you know to become second nature, do laps around the field, sweat off those last five ounces to make the weigh-in for tomorrow’s match. “OK guys, great you all made weight. Now go home, eat a nice lean steak and get lots of rest for tomorrow…”
And be fit, and feel confident! But in the first year, it was enough for someone to say, “Oh, you’re up against Martin. He’s City Champion. Tough luck.” And the issues would be: will you manage to survive the first period? How hard will you struggle against the inevitable? Will your entire school get to watch you give up, or will the gaunt powerful champion, looking disdainfully over a nose broken no doubt in a bar-room brawl, actually have to work at it to pin your shoulders to the mat? I hung in for a terrified 45 seconds in my first match.
By the fourth year, the wheel had gone around. With an aura of championships and victories, this one’s name alone would defeat some opponents. I saw that in their eyes. Aggressive opponents were the easiest, because at the moment of their attack they were vulnerable, their energy could be appropriated, with a bit of speed and balance and certainty.
Convincing or confusing feints might induce others to straighten up, with weight held forward, making them easy prey for a leg dive and a fireman’s carry, and a firm deposit on their backs for a 15-second win.
We were a great team, with a coach who knew and loved the sport and how to make us work and we were fit to bounce off the wall and throw each other around (and recover from injuries really fast!). I was unbeaten. We won the championship. The school gave me its most valuable player award. But I never joined any kind of sports team again, never reached that level of physical fitness and ebullient personal confidence.
What has this got to do with yoga? Wrestling is a combat sport, win/lose, egos have a banquet of praise or shrivel in public defeat. It’s not therapeutic: by age 26 most people are too old for the sport. Today my knees still hurt sometimes from the grinding into the mat of the wrestling years. But it was intense, like the Ashtanga practice: in its drilling, sweating, discipline, developing new abilities and strength every week.
There’s no opponent in Warrior Pose (Virabhadrasana), except your own ego or fear. No crowd cheering wildly when you stay solid in Tree Pose (Vrikshasana), just an inner eye observing.
But persist, past arm waves and wobbles,
And you will find balance, strength, and conviction.
And if you’re silent, you’ll hear, deep in the cells of your being,
Meditation is meant to calm the mind and to focus it, thereby improving the meditator’s quality of life and by extension the lives of the people around him. I find that meditation is best achieved by concentrating on one’s breathing: mindful conscious breathing. A chakra is an energy centre in the body. Chakra means wheel in Sanskrit. It is believed that there are 7 chakras positioned along the spine. Each chakra has a colour and represents a positive character trait. While I meditate, simultaneous with the conscious breathing, I imagine the colours of each chakra and the personality trait that each chakra represents, and I do this to the rhythm of my breath, in a repeating cycle.
The following poem is to be read slowly, two inhale-exhales per line, and to imagine the colours unfolding in the mind’s eye.
Breathe-in inhale, breathe-out exhale,
The waves of the ocean, meeting the shore,
Ebbing and flowing, back and forth,
My heart beat accompanies, the rhythmic song.
My gaze to the horizon, where sea meets sky,
The sun’s rays sparkling, on waves hypnotic,
I imagine a fountain, surging through my spine,
A rainbow of colours, an infinite loop spouting,
The reverberating arpeggio, of an angel’s harp.
Red is for grounding, the Muladhara Chakra,
Orange for creativity, the Swadhishthana Chakra,
Yellow for determination, the Nabhi Chakra,
Green is for heart, the Anahata Chakra.
Blue is for voice, the Vishuddhi Chakra,
Purple for intuition, the Agnya Chakra,
Mauve for transcendence, the Sahastrara Chakra.
The colours are spiralling, within my mind,
Red orange yellow green, blue purple mauve,
A mantra, an incantation, a basso ostinato,
A lilting lullaby, to the here and now,
Swishing and swirling, twirling and whirling.
The day night cycle, the moon around earth,
The season’s cycle, the earth around sun,
These celestial orbits, in a vast spinning dance,
The macrocosm a mirror, of the microcosmic atom,
Echoes of the life force, pulsing through my being.
I love the sound of the Sanskrit names for the yoga poses. They are like poems or tongue-twisters that roll off the tongue. For example, Ekapadarajakapothasana is 11 syllables! It translates into English as One-legged King Pigeon Pose.
I also love that many of the names for the poses refer to animals and plants, and as I do these poses, I connect to all living creatures. Yoga presents me with the opportunity to be a cat, dog, cow, dolphin, butterfly, a tree and lotus. Yoga is saying that we originate from the same stardust, breathe the same air, we are subject to the same cyclical ebb and flow of the solar system.