Animals and yoga are interconnected, though people don’t often think about it unless a cat is rubbing their face on them in an inversion, or a dog takes a sniff while in savasana. Whether you are in the barnyard practicing with goats, calling your asana an animal name, or exploring the historical roots of spirit animals in Shamanic traditions, animals are connected to people and have their place in yoga.
Animals and the Roots of Yoga
To explore just how prevalent animals are in yoga traditions, all we have to do is look at the history of yoga. Many religious traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism & Jainism, all of which have influenced yoga, utilize animals symbolically. The history of animals and people on the Indian subcontinent dates back to at least 3000 BCE, embodied by artifacts found In the Indus Valley. Material remains of this ancient civilization, such as the stone sealsadorned with animals like rhinos, elephants and bulls found in the Indus Valley, indicate that animals played a prevalent role in society.
One of my favorite representations of the human relationship to other animals is embodied in Lord Dattatreya, a revered Hindu monk and a master of yoga. He exemplifies that humans can learn from animals and the natural world by keeping an open mind and seeing value in all things and a teacher in all beings. Out of the 24 teachers he had, half of them were animals, including one fish, two birds, two reptiles, and five insects. In paintings, he is often surrounded by four dogs, representing the four Vedas, and a cow, representing Mother Earth. Dattatreya teaches us that natural gurus exist everywhere – you just need to notice them.
Animals in the Asanas
Animals can teach us a lot about movement. Have you ever witnessed your pet stretching? Dogs often take downward dog, cats utilize cat pose, cobras rise up to cobra pose, They already know how to move their bodies and adjust and survive in the environment they are in. Humans, despite all of our technological advances and ability to collaborate together, don’t always understand how to care for our bodies.
Most people start their yoga journey through asana, or postures. Some scholars note that physical yoga is the ability to get back in touch with the way we move naturally- in other words, being connected with our animal instincts or the animal realm. Animals are recognized for their characteristics; for example, lions may be considered as regal and brave, while an eagle may symbolize grace and stealth. Asanas with animal names have deep roots throughout the history of yoga. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, many poses carried animal names, including Lion’s pose, Rooster, and Peacock. The Gheranda Samhita, another classic Hatha yoga text written in the 17th-century, mentions even more animal asanas, including the Camel, Crocodile and Frog. Using inspiration from animals in their namesake, these postures require some understanding and respect for the animal that inspires them. Reflecting on why certain postures celebrate a specific animal is a great place to start exploring how asanas are connected to movements and the animals they are meant to represent.
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