Beyond Form: Embodying the Animal

Asanas are a microcosm of life quote by David Life Sharon Gannon
Asanas are a microcosm of life quote by David Life Sharon Gannon

Om asato ma sad-gamaya tamaso ma jyotir gamaya mrityor ma amritam gamaya Om shantih shantih shantih

Lead me from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality. Om peace peace peace.

We come into these bodies from the formless, and to the formless we will return. The embodiment we experience in-between is a process of taking form. As infants we don’t know where our mothers end and we begin, but gradually we are told. We are given our names, our culture, our family history, the foods we can enjoy, the languages we will speak, the schools that will teach us, our identity.

Our use of language is often used as an example of what separates us from other animals. Ironically it is our use of language that causes much of the confusion around our true identity. Language is a set of symbols, both spoken and written, that we use to represent reality. We are so reliant upon these symbols that we often confuse them with reality itself.

During my yoga teacher training I changed my name from my given name, Derek, to my so-called spiritual name, Pashupa. I did not realize that spiritual names are typically given by a teacher, but that is another story. Never the less it was a great lesson in identity. I actually feel differently when people call me Derek than I do when people call me Pashupa. They seem to be roles that I play. Derek is the vegan photographer with a checkered past. Pashupa is the spiritual yogi who sits before you.

Words like vegan, photographer, spiritual, and yogi all put me into a box. So do names like Derek and Pashupa. They are symbols for aspects of my personality, certainly, but to be defined is to be limited. Yoga teaches us that we are limitless beings with infinite potential. Our bodies and our minds become conditioned by the symbols and memes of language and we lose access to that potential. How can we practice yoga in a way that will help us regain our unlimited potential? How can we go beyond form?

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras begin with the sutra “Atha Yoga Anushasanam” which translates to “Now this is yoga as I have perceived it in the natural world.” The Sanskrit word atha means now, and places the teachings in the present moment. Yoga means “to yoke to” or “union”. Shasanam is a teaching or discipline, and the word anu in front of it means “atom” or smallest part.

My teacher and Jivamukti Yoga co-creator Sharon Gannon says “(atha yoga anushasanam) means that the atoms will instruct you: the essential nature within all of life will be your teacher — Nature will teach you. The wisdom that you need is all around you in the very forms of nature. Every encounter has profound meaning, providing a means to link or yoke you to the infinite, which is where you really belong.” (September 2012 Jivamukti Yoga Focus of the Month)

Hanny performing Bakasana (Crow Pose)

Hanny performing Bakasana (Crow Pose)

In our asana practice we practice expanding our boundaries by taking on the forms found in nature. We become mountains and trees, gods, sticks, kings and triangles. We also take the forms of myriads of creatures that inhabit the land, air and sea. In yoga asana when we take the form of another being we are not just taking an arbitrary shape – we are embodying the energy and essence of that other being.

Asana means “seat” or “connection to the earth”. We can connect to the earth as the tree being, the mountain being, the cat being, the cow being, the turtle being, the camel being. The practice of asana is the practice of going beyond form. It is the practice of letting go of identifying with the ever-shifting unreality of our small self, and striving to align with our true nature, formless and eternal. The larger self who knows the interconnectivity of all beings and forms, and flows freely through them all, like the breath that connects all of the shapes we take on our yoga mats.

To realize yoga we must transcend the misperception that we are separate from the rest of creation. The truth is that we are woven into the fabric of every other being in the universe, and our universe is woven into the multiverse, and we are are all together eternal and infinite. This is a very difficult concept for the human mind to conceive, and so we rely on the practices of yoga to help us. Taking the forms of other beings is a powerful tool, as it helps us dissolve our own boundaries. It also teaches us to treat other beings with compassion, for the more we understand them, the more we understand our connection to earth, to nature, and to each other.