This week guest writer Suzanne Mariska Bishop chimes in on the deities of yoga and their significance in the practice.
What do these guys have to do with yoga?
A student asked me this once. We were on a teacher training retreat, in a temple that was covered in statues and paintings of deities. It was a good, reasonable question. What were we doing in a temple anyway? This student had signed up to learn to teach yoga classes, not go on a mythological journey. But even in the most fitness-based yoga, we tend to stumble into its spiritual roots. Yoga mat bags are inscribed with Sanskrit lettering, you hear enigmatic chanting in the background music, and studio walls and retail section items are adorned with colorful, exotic-looking gods and goddesses.
So what do those guys have to do with yoga? Is it some kind of religion? Do we just like the pretty pictures? Different people will give you different answers. And they may all be right. Or they may all be wrong.
My answer? It depends. It’s actually up to you.
Yoga is old. Maybe 5,000 years (people disagree on this too). It comes from a time and place where spiritual practice was an important part of life. It involved lots of different things, including meditation, chanting, devotional dance, symbolic rituals, and the study and memorization of sacred scriptures and mythologies. Hence the colorful deities.
The poses of yoga were used by early practitioners to prepare the body and mind for meditation. Yoga poses also probably helped people counteract the effects of a physically difficult lifestyle, and people started using them to stay healthier and feel better in general. Just like we do.
Their lives were not separated into categories labeled “work”, “spirituality”, and “exercise”. It was all woven together. It was all yoga. So the practices, the
mythologies, and the exercises all evolved together, fluidly and messily, as life goes. Different regions adapted their practices in different ways, and there developed a wide-ranging abundance of styles and traditions. Some were more physical, some more spiritual, some a mix of both.
When yoga arrived in the West in the late 1800s, us westerners simply continued this messy and widespread adapting. Some people stuck to the most traditional path they could find. Others changed their yoga practices to meet modern needs and desires. Some chanted around statues of deities, some practiced the poses, some sat in silent meditation. Some did all these things, and in different ways. People argued, as people will, about which practices were better and how exactly they should be performed.
So back to my “it depends” answer.
Each god or goddess represents a manifestation of the Divine within us. Some are gentle, others are fierce. There are deities that correspond to creativity, protection, nourishment; transformation. They have their own stories and mantras and symbols. Invoking a deity is a way of setting intention, of calling forth that type of energy in your practice. Do you need inspiration? You might call on Sarasvati. Is something blocking your way? Ganesha may be able to help. It’s really just another way to look at life and personal growth.
You may have heard that “yoga is more than the poses”. You may take the same classes as your friend, but your path to accessing the deeper levels of yoga is uniquely yours. It has to do with what kind of learner you are, your spiritual beliefs and background, your stage of life, and what tools work best for you. Yoga has techniques for all the ways we interact with and learn from the world - physical, intellectual, creative, intuitive, auditory, visual. In the end, it doesn't really matter if colorful pictures of Eastern gods and goddesses are your thing or not. Your yoga is yours, and if you honor it your way, it will work for you.