The monkey god, Hanuman, is one of the more well-known mythological characters within the yoga tradition. An important character in the Indian epic the Ramayana, Hanuman’s story is often featured in yoga classes where hanumanasana (the splits) is the peak pose. In fact, hanumanasana is not the only yoga pose that relates to Hanuman’s story. Anjaneyasana (low lunge) and virasana (hero pose) are also related to his story.
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Hanumanasana and the psoas
It’s worth noting that each of these poses stretch the psoas, which is known to be both a deep core muscle and a hip flexor that provides support to the lumbar spine. The psoas has the capacity to both curl us into a protective ball and propel us forward into action, which indicates that it is intimately connected with our sympathetic nervous system; our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. The nature of this relationship is such that the psoas plays an important role in our experience of fear. In fact, the psoas is actually thought to be one of the places within the body that we store fear when we are unable to express it outwardly.
[Interested in learning more about the mythology behind your favourite poses? Then you might find these articles interesting: The symbolism behind chakrasana (wheel pose) and Ganesh and the mythology behind ardha chandrasana (half moon pose)]
Also, the psoas connects to the diaphragm; a big dome-shaped muscle that sits below the lungs and is one of our primary muscles of inhalation. The diaphragm’s activity exerts a very real effect on the relative tightness (or otherwise) of the psoas. For example, stress tends to express as quick, shallow breathing, which creates a pattern of referred tension in the psoas. For many of us, with our fast-paced lives, stressful jobs and inability to unwind, the psoas becomes chronically tense. Releasing the psoas can be an inherently uncomfortable experience and one that is likely intimately connected with the simultaneous release of unexpressed fears and chronic lifestyle stress, which gets locked in this area of the body.
Why do we care? Because overcoming fear and stress is one of the key attributes of Hanuman’s story. And so his story begins…
The story of hanuman
Hanuman’s mother, Anjana, was a very beautiful woman who wished, more than anything, to become a mother. Her desire was so strong she prayed daily for a miracle birth. Luckily, her beauty was such that the wind god – Vayu - one of her most ardent admirers, decided to grant her this wish.
Blessing a few grains of rice, he asked some bird friends who happened to be travelling in Anjana’s direction to deliver the blessed rice to her as she was praying. Hands outstretched in Anjali Mudra, the rice fell into Anjana’s hands and she had the wherewithal to swallow it without question. With the power of Vayu’s blessing she became pregnant.
Anjana named her baby Anjaneya (which means, ‘son of Anjana’). Born a demi-god (his mother a mortal, his father a god) Anjaneya was a handful, often getting into trouble until one day he took it too far. Waking up one morning, Anjaneya saw what looked like a giant mango floating in the sky. Without even a second thought he leaped high into the sky towards the giant fruit, giving little consideration to the fact that it was far more likely to be the sun than a floating mango.
Of course, it was, in fact, the sun and seeing Anjaneya rushing towards him and about to take a bite, the sun god, Surya, threw a lightning bolt at him. The lightning bold struck him the jaw, killing him instantly.
When the wind god, Vayu, heard about his son’s death he was, of course, furious. In his anger, he sucked in one giant breath, drawing all the air out of the earth. The earth began to suffocate. Realising the dire nature of the situation the gods called an emergency meeting. Their desire was to find a way to diffuse the feud between Surya and Vayu, however, Vayu refused to exhale until Anjana was brought back to life. Surya agreed on certain conditions:
Anjaneya would receive a new name; Hanuman. Hanuh, the word for jaw, is a reference to Anjaneya’s fall from grace and a reminder of the consequence of careless actions.
Once revived they agreed that Hanuman would be cursed with short term memory to ensure he would never be able to remember who he was; that he was, in fact, divine (demi-god that he was). This meant he would never be able to do the kind of damage he was known to have caused in his past.
Finally, he would be sent to live with a clan of monkey warriors, under the guidance of the monkey king Sugriva. They were tasked with shaping him into a man of morality, a warrior of purpose, someone of respect.
Their plan worked. Hanuman grew to be a proud warrior and an integral member of the warrior clan.
Hanuman and King Ram
One day, Hanuman was travelling through the forest when he came across King Ram; the seventh avatar of the Hindu god, Vishnu. The connection between the two men was immediate and Hanuman swore to the king to be a faithful friend and servant. When Ram contacted him to say that his wife, Sita, had been kidnapped by the evil demon Ravana, Hanuman was quick to help.
King Ram was preparing to lead his troops into battle against Ravana and was unable to rescue his wife. He entrusted Hanuman with the job. Hanuman had no idea how he would accomplish this task. He was in India and Ravana’s kingdom was in Sri Lanka and when he reached the Indian coast he did not know how he would find the resources needed to traverse the sea between kingdoms. He doubted his abilities, and yet, loyal to his friend, he was committed to finding a way.
He knelt down and prayed for the strength to be able to carry out his task (taking the position of virasana; hero pose) and, as he prayed, a feeling of power and conviction built inside of him. Rising from the ground, with unwavering faith, he felt the power he’d generated swell inside him with such force that a shockwave of energy radiated outwards in all directions, flattening the countryside. He was thrust into the air, soaring over the sea to Sri Lanka.
Of course, the irony of the situation was that, as the son of the wind god, Vayu, he had always been able to do anything he wanted. He had been capable of great feats his entire life. If not for the curse of short term memory he would have been able to connect with the divinity within him at will. And this is where this story is instructional for us.
Hanuman’s lesson for modern yogis
If we believe in the teachings of the Tantric tradition we will understand that we all have threads of divine energy coursing through us. We’ve all had the feeling, at some point in our lives, that there’s a force inside of us that’s bigger than our individual ego and yet our memories are such that this realisation is lost almost as soon as we’ve felt this awareness flicker. All of us have a power within us that is bigger than our fears, a power we can draw on whenever we have the courage of our convictions.
As Hanuman propelled himself over the ocean, he did so with one foot forward and one foot back, mimicking the shape of hanumanasana - the splits - a pose that requires the psoas to be both open and strong. Although the journey across the ocean was treacherous, Hanuman landed in Sri Lanka and was able to find Sita in the grounds of Ravana’s palace.
And there you have it! The mythology behind the pose, hanumanasana.