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The ancient practice of yoga is timeless. It is fortified by its wonderful symbology and goes way beyond mere stretching and poses. Even if you don’t practice yoga’s spiritual elements, you can enrich your experience with a better understanding of its concepts and roots.
The Symbols of Yoga
Pronounced “ohm” or “aum,” it is the universal sound, which symbolizes our striving to achieve the absolute state. When you look at the shape or chant the tonality, the chakras energize within the body and begin to resonate at a higher frequency.
Om is the epitome of unification through dreaming and waking. In doing this, we overcome the obstacles of illusion and bring synthesis to our divine purpose. This concept intricately ties in with Lord Ganesh, who helps us overcome and remove the barriers of illusion. Each section of the symbol represents this.
- The dot at the top is the absolute or highest state of consciousness.
- The curve below the dot signifies the illusions that bar us from reaching the absolute state.
- On the left of this are two similar curves. The bottom symbolizes the waking state and symbolizes life with the five senses.
- The curve above is the unconscious, representing the sleeping state.
- The curve connected to the waking and unconscious curves is the dream state when sleeping.
In ancient Sanskrit, the swastika, or svastika, was an important symbol. It’s an equal-sided cross with arms bent and angled in the same direction. If the arms are bent clockwise (right) it indicates luck and abundance while counterclockwise (left) symbolizes bad luck and misfortune.
The arms represent all those things that come in fours: the Vedas, life goals, stages of life, epochs of human existence, social classes, seasons, directions, and yoga paths. The word itself is an act of yoga that joins several sounds together, each with an individual interpretation.
Su – Asti – Ik – A
- Su: good
- Asti: to be
- Ik: what is in existence and what will continue to exist
- A: the sound for the divine feminine
Therefore, svastika means “let good prevail” or “good exists eternally”. It imparts victory and blessings while symbolizing prosperity, luck, the sun, and the fire of life with a divine-feminine undertone.
There is no Indian holy place without a snake. In yoga, it’s known as the naga and further symbolizes Kundalini energy. The snake has a myriad of stories, myths, and intricacies that would take a lifetime to present, but there are some noteworthy aspects.
Naga translates to “cobra,” but it can also refer to any snake in general. Nagas are spiritual beings integral to Lord Shiva and Lord Ganesh in relationship to the human body in yoga (https://isha.sadhguru.org/us/en/wisdom/article/snakes-and-mysticism). Two snakes symbolize the energetic currents within the body. One coiled serpent sits at the first chakra, also called Kundalini. It moves up the spine, working its way through each center to bring purity and mindfulness.
The lotus is an enduring yoga symbol. It’s closely associated with Shiva and his meditational pose and signifies each chakra.
The lotus equates to life’s journey and remaining strong in the face of hardship. Like the lotus, regardless of the murky waters that surround us, we can still be beautiful and resilient.
The lotus signifies feminine beauty, fertility, prosperity, eternity, spirituality, and the human soul, thereby connecting it to a host of female deities in conjunction with yoga practices.
108 is an auspicious number in yoga. It connects to Lord Ganesh, his 108 names, and the 108 beads of the mala, or prayer garland. This is a rosary-type meditation tool that helps a devotee to count and recite the number of times they speak a mantra.
The number 108 has significance in math and science too. One represents the universe, zero stands for humility and eight signifies eternity. In astronomy, the distance from the sun and moon to the earth is 108 times their respective diameters. In geometry, a pentagon’s interior angles are 108°.
There are 108 sacred sites in India along with 108 sacred texts, or Upanishads. There are 54 letters in the Sanskrit alphabet. When this is multiplied by 2 (the masculine and feminine energies fund in each letter), we arrive at 108. Some believe the number represents the 108 stages of life’s journey.
Many people understand Hamsa to be a hand that wards off the evil eye. However, this idea is a contemporary addition, and the symbol is actually Jewish or Islamic in nature. Hinduism views evil in a different way to these religions. They see wickedness as something that comes from within. In Judaism and Islam, the evil eye is an outside entity to guard against and repel.
The Hamsa in Hinduism and Buddhism is a swan-like aquatic bird that denotes a balance between good and evil to overcome the perils of suffering.
Chakras are energy centers believed to be within the body and symbolized by a lotus. The word translates to “wheel” or “disc,” which corrects imbalances through the practice of yoga.
1st Chakra: Muladhara (Root)
This chakra sits at the base of the spine and represents the earth element, signified by the color red. The symbol for this is a lotus with four petals encircling an inverted triangle within a square.
The number four is the basis for all other chakras, portending stability and foundational concepts. The Root connects to the lower half of the spine, legs, and feet. It involves our instincts for survival, grounding, and self-identity.
2nd Chakra: Svadhisthana (Sweetness)
Located in the abdomen, the second, or Sacral Chakra, sits just below the navel. It’s orange and is associated with the element of water. It denotes freedom, flexibility, and flow of emotion. It appears as a six-petal lotus with two circles inside it. The bottom of these appears like a crescent moon.
Each petal equates to the illusions we must overcome: anger, jealousy, cruelty, hatred, pride, and desire. The whole symbol denotes lunar energy along with the cycles of life, birth and death.
This is our emotional and sexual identity; symbolizing our capacity to accept change, feel pleasure, experience joy, and exude gracefulness.
3rd Chakra: Manipura (Lustrous Gem)
The third Chakra, or Solar Plexus, rests above the navel. It represents fire and is yellow. This chakra’s symbol has 10 petals surrounding an inverted triangle. The petals are the energies flowing into and out of our souls in relationship to the energy we put forward. The triangle indicates all three chakras up to this point.
This is about our right to act, our sense of personal power, and expression of individuality. It’s our ego and the core of our being. It denotes willpower, self-discipline, self-esteem, and the right to act on our own behalf. It also reflects responsibility and reliability balanced with a sense of playfulness and humor.
4th Chakra: Anahata (Unstruck)
The fourth chakra, also called the Heart Chakra, lies in the chest. It signifies the air element and is green. Its symbol consists of 12 petals housing a six-pointed star, or hexagram. These are actually two triangles – one inverted and another pointed upward – representing the universal female and male energies.
Each petal is an aspect of heart energy: peace, bliss, love, harmony, empathy, understanding, purity, clarity, compassion, unity, forgiveness, and kindness. These symbolize our capacity for healing, wholeness, and seeing goodness within others. This chakra stands for our right to love and be loved and includes self-love.
5th Chakra: Vissudha (Purification)
The fifth chakra, called Purification, rules over the throat and shoulders. It is blue and signifies the ether element. Its symbol’s 16 petals represent the 16 Sanskrit vowels which encase an inverted triangle encapsulating a circle. This symbolizes our ability to speak honestly while reflecting integrity, creativity, and confidence.
6th Chakra: Ajna (Perception)
The sixth chakra is Perception. It sits between the eyes and connects to the pineal gland. This is the element of light beset with an indigo color. It has two petals and an inverted triangle inside, denoting the duality between the self and the universe.
Ajna represents our capacity for self-reflection and how we can develop a clear vision, foresight, and hindsight. It’s the link between the mind, the world, and the divine and gives us the power to see correctly.
7th Chakra: Sahasrara (Thousandfold)
The Crown Chakra sits at the top of the head and rules the element of thought with the color violet. The symbol radiates like a crown with its 1,000 petals. The circle in the center symbolizes eternity via the awakening of the unconscious mind.
Sahasrara is our right to know and learn while transcending mortal limitations. It brings us wisdom and enlightenment. It signifies memory, brain function, and our individual positions within the cosmos.
Breadth and Depth of Yoga
The definition, the history, and mythology behind yoga’s genesis are important for further understanding. The most common and broadest definition of yoga is “to yoke,” or “to bring or join together”. However, it goes deeper than that. Yoga is the harmonious union of all things masculine and feminine.
How Yoga Came to Humanity
Lord Shiva, the third deity in the Hindu triumvirate, is said to have been the originator of yoga. Shiva first taught yoga to his wife, Parvati, on their wedding night. He showed her 84 poses, or asanas, that are said to bring ultimate health, happiness, and success.
Soon after this, Parvati observed humanity’s suffering. She couldn’t bear it and her compassion overflowed. She understood the benefits yoga offered and yearned to share this miraculous gift with mankind. But Shiva was reluctant as he didn’t trust mortals. Eventually, Parvati convinced him to change his mind.
Shiva then created a subgroup of divine beings who, upon completing their training, were transformed into the 18 Siddhas (“accomplished ones”) of pure enlightenment and spirituality. He sent these entities among humanity to teach the wisdom of yoga.
Yoga – A Symbol Within a Symbol
This story is more descriptive in its original telling but even in the abbreviated version, every aspect imparts meanings that interlace and intersect, making yoga a symbol within itself.
Yoga is a sign of personal enlightenment and spiritual accomplishment, connecting an individual to the mysterious and eternal nature of the universe. Through breathing and poses, we release pain, suffering and misery while adopting a more balanced, positive, and spiritual outlook on life.
The practice of yoga does not end when we complete some asanas and get up off the mat. Its principles extend to all tasks we perform every day and all our interactions with others. For instance, studying the simultaneous movements of the sun (male) and moon (female) is a form of yoga. Anything can be yoga – writing, art, astronomy, education, cooking, cleaning, and so on.
Hindu Deities as Yoga Symbols
In yoga, to connect with a particular god means to resonate with universal truth. Connecting with Parvati, for instance, means calling upon the universal student who bestows compassion, understanding, mercy, devotion, kindness, and love.
The god Shiva is the original spark of yoga. Concentration on his energies brings the attainment of flawless meditation and spirituality. He helps us destroy evil while linking to infinite knowledge.
Another deity integral to yoga is the elephant-headed god, Ganesh. He has 108 different names, all denoting his role as the keeper of wisdom and remover of obstacles. He is a symbol of success, abundance, and prosperity. Lord Ganesh is the second son of Shiva and Parvati, and they are said to reside on Mount Kailash in Tibet.
The Buddha is yet another potent yoga symbol and he also has strong associations with Mount Kailash. He, like Shiva, represents the ultimate in mental and emotional discipline, showing us enlightenment through meditation. The Buddha teaches freedom from the chains of suffering and materialism.
The realm of yoga symbols is vast and rich with meaning. There are a host of other concepts that can deepen the understanding of the ideas presented here. They provide vehicles and methods in which to join the masculine and feminine. Such opposites embed every aspect of life – from the more mundane daily tasks to the highest spiritual pursuits. Therefore, life itself is an act and symbol of yoga.