Yoga comes from a rich cultural tradition that traces it’s roots back thousands of years. As such, it employs a number of symbols, metaphors and devices that trace their origins back to the mythological and religious practices of ancient India.
Though it is not necessary to understand it’s original cultural context in order to practice Yoga, exploring the symbols of Yoga can help to enrich your experience by immersing yourself in a rich tapestry of imagery that serves as a metaphor for the spiritual journey.
Surrounding yourself with positive symbols can be an incredibly powerful device to produce an atmosphere of devotion and reverence and serve as a reminder to concentrate on your practice.
Some of these symbols are images of deities and heroes from the Hindu pantheon and some of them are simple objects that are common in Indian religious life.
However, we will begin our survey of the symbols of Yoga with the single most ubiquitous metaphor in, not only all of Yoga, but all of Indian spiritual and philosophical life.
The sound Om, is said to represent the primordial sound of the universe itself.
When chanted, the sound has three syllables that correspond to the Trimurti, the three principal gods of Hindu mythology or, alternatively, the three aspects of the divine principle in Hindu philosophy.
These syllables are A, U and M.
The syllable A, corresponds to Brahma, the god or principle of creation.
The syllable U, corresponds to Vishnu, the sustainer of life or the principle of preservation and order.
The syllable M, corresponds to Shiva, the god or principle of destruction.
Chanting Om is said to contain special power for purifying the mind and drawing the attention inward by focusing on what is most essential, most basic, about our embodied experience.
Om has it’s own special character in the Sanskrit language which is itself a powerful symbol that is seen everywhere in the yoga world.
The symbol contains four parts which are each said to represent an aspect of human consciousness.
The bottom curve represents the waking state.
The middle curve represents the dream state.
The top curve represents the state of deep sleep.
The dot at the top of the symbol represents a state called Turiya, which is the transcendent state where one perceives their ultimate unity with the rest of existence.
The half-moon shape below the dot represents Maya, or the illusion of the material world which creates the distinction between oneself and others. This is seen as a boundary one has to cross in order to achieve this state of Turiya.
The beaded necklaces that are seen around the necks of so many yoga enthusiasts are not just exotic fashion accessories. They actually have an important purpose in certain types of yogic practice.
The beads are used when performing japa, or the repetition of mantras as a form of meditation. Each bead is held for one repetition of the mantra and when the mantra is finished the practitioner moves on to the next bead and repeats the mantra again.
Each mala holds a large number of beads. Traditionally, 108 of them.
The number 108 holds spiritual significance in yoga and Hinduism.
There are 108 pithas, or important sacred sites, in India, 108 names of god, 108 Upanishads, the traditional texts of Indian philosophy, 108 pressure points in traditional Indian medicine.
The Sanskrit language has 54 characters each with 2 forms, totalling 108.
The commonly seen figure of a man’s body with the head of an elephant is Ganesha, a popular deity in the Hindu pantheon.
There are many different stories of Ganesha that ascribe him different origins, but he is usually portrayed as the son of the god Shiva and his consort Parvati. In one common origin story, Shiva beheads his son in a case of mistaken identity and replaces his head with that of Airavata, the elephant steed of the god Indra, who offers his head up out of devotion to Shiva.
Ganesha is commonly seen as the remover of obstacles and worshipping him is thought to bring prosperity and success, but the obstacles in question are not only physical obstacles but spiritual ones as well. This is why statues and images of Ganesha are so common in yoga studios.
The image of a god dancing atop a demon in a circle of fire holding a drum and a snake is a commonly seen depiction of Shiva, the god of time, destruction and change.
In this exciting image, Shiva is portrayed dancing the Tandava, the sacred dance that heralds the creation and destruction of the universe. It is meant to symbolize the divine play that is life and inspire the devotee to take a joyful and creative attitude towards existence.
It might seem strange that a god of destruction is seen as an object of love and devotion, but in Hindu philosophy, the world that he destroys is the illusory world of maya that distracts the yogi from appreciating his true nature. That of union with the divine.
The lotus flower is an important symbol in many eastern traditions.
The lotus plant itself tends to grow in swampy, muddy waters. It produces a beautiful flower that sits just above the water and generally remains untouched by the murky waters that it emerged from. In this way, it symbolizes the possibility of spiritual awakening, that one can emerge from their world of suffering and illusion into the clear air and beauty of transcendent bliss.
One of the things the lotus flower is used to symbolize is the chakras, or energy centres located in the subtle body. Each of the chakras is seen as a vehicle to achieving spiritual progress and they culminate in the thousand-petalled “crown” chakra which emerges from the top of the head like the lotus from the pond.
It is thought that if one is able to develop an awareness of their crown chakra they will acquire the ability to perceive the world outside of the limitations of their body and transcend ordinary states of human consciousness.
The symbols of yoga are rich in spiritual significance.
We’ve only scratched the surface here.
One of the main benefits of studying yoga in India is that you are able to appreciate the practice in its original cultural context. The richness of history, mythology, and philosophy that gave rise to the ideals of divine union that yoga represents are still present in India.
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