I'm just back from my third annual Yoga workshop in Hailey, Idaho. When I asked the folks up in Hailey what they wanted to work on this year they set me an interesting task: a weekend workshop based on poses named after Hindu gods. After digging through Iyengar's Light on Yoga (200 asanas), Yogeshvara Paramahamsa's First Steps to Higher Yoga (300 asanas), and the Lonavla Institute's Encyclopedia of Traditional Asanas (900 asanas), I decided to open things up and include in the workshop poses named after Hindu sages and one famous monster. And so we had a Virabhadra Class (the hideous demon created by Shiva to punish his father-in-law), a Sages Class, an Avatars of Vishnu Class, and a Shiva Nataraja Class. A good weekend, though my scheduled departure on Sunday was delayed 'til Monday because the airport was snowed in ... did I mention that Hailey is 12 miles south of the famous ski resort of Sun Valley?
A couple of interesting items emerged from my research. Firstly an informal survey of 170 asanas listed in books written between the 14th and 18th centuries reveal almost 40% are named after animals, but only two sages are honored with asanas, legendary Hatha Yoga masters Matsyendra and Goraksha, and one lonely deity, Bhairava (an aspect of Shiva). Though more research is needed, it's likely that asanas named after deities/sages are a mostly 20th century innovation, probably that of T. Krishnamacharya, Iyengar's guru and brother-in-law. Of the 69 asanas in his "channeled" book (more about that some other time), Yoga Rahasya ("Secret Yoga"), 8 are named after deities/sages (not counting 1 monster and 4 avatars): Nataraja, Brahma, Matsyendra, Vasishtha, Kaundinya, Marichi, Ashtavakra, Bharadvaja. The latter 5 names are Vedic sages, who for most Americans are about as well known as Hailey. Why did Mr K chose them rather than Hatha Yoga masters or even better known yoga characters like Patanjali and Arjuna. We can theorize for the time being he might have been trying to legitimize his innovations and give them a patina of tradition by associating them with the Rig Veda.
Secondly none of these newer asanas are named after female sages or deities. When I pointed this out to the group in Hailey, the women-who outnumbered the men in class 20-1-didn't seem at all disturbed, they graciously acknowledged that yoga's past, even up to the 1920s, is by our standards chauvinistic. In the end I found a grand total of five asanas named after female deities, though two are today identified by other names. Here's a possible sequence, but don't blink, it goes by fast:
LAKSHMI ASANA (= Baddha Konasana) > YONI ASANA (from Lakshmi, lean the torso forward) > SITA ASANA (from Yoni, press the elbows to the knees, and backs of the hands on floor) > SARASVATI ASANA (= Pashchimottanasana) > KUNDALINI ASANA (stand up, reach the hands behind the thighs, then press the hands against the inner thighs as you lift the chest).
There may not be many asanas named after women, but we have plenty of events this month at PYS hosted by women. For the sake of space and your sanity, I'll be brief in describing all our offerings. You can find details about these events at our website, www.piedmontyoga.com, and unless otherwise noted, register there online as well.