Bestselling Indian author (53 books and counting), celebrity, media personality and self-styled mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik has partnered with American yoga teacher Matthew Rulli to produce his latest book. The book opens with an Authors’ Note containing the disclaimers: “This is not a book on the practice of yoga. This is about the mythology that nurtured the idea of yoga” and “This is not a manual for asanas.” Reading on, we are told: “This book uses various yoga postures as inspiration to leap into the world of Hindu mythology with occasional detours into Jain and Buddhst mythology.” (17)
The book is organized in four sections, dedicated to the Devi, Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu, with 64 asanas and related stories distributed among them. (The number sixty-four, we are told, indicates infinity). Stories are drawn from Buddhist and Jain sources, though those from Hindu culture, not surprisingly, predominate.
Clearly, the authors have done their research. They include some poses familiar to the average yoga student, several that are probably unfamiliar to all but advanced practitioners, a handful (crocodile, vajrasana, dandasana) that sound familiar but are presented in unusual and challenging versions, and poses largely named for sages. A good number in this last category, known as “party poses” in some yoga circles for their flashy “Look at this!” quality, involve bearing weight through the arms while doing something complicated with the legs, such as wrapping one leg behind the head. As a yoga teacher, I know that arm balances come more easily to men than to women, due to the superior upper-body strength and higher center of gravity of the average male body. I think of these as these definitely “guy poses” even though they can be and are also performed by women. I also know that the majority of students in most classes are women. So the inclusion of all those arm balances made me go “Hmm,” and I found myself wondering just who the intended audience was. Given American yoga’s emphasis on asana, and the challenging nature of the “party poses,” will this selection really inspire readers to “leap into the world of Hindu mythology”?
The book has much more going for it than the poses. Don’t be put off by the ones you find obscure or too challenging. Let the stories and their values enhance your appreciation of India’s rich culture and yoga’s diverse nature. The stories are engaging and the line drawings are charming, energetic and plentiful. (In fact, I wished for drawings to replace the small black and white photos which don’t always show the poses to best advantage.) The inclusion of Jain and Buddhist tales expands our habitual notion of yoga as “Hindu” while the concluding section, “Metaphors of the Yogini”, forces us to confront the image of the yogi as a male ascetic bent on controlling or escaping the natural world. “Yoginis are the food for the hungry, the power for the frightened, and the knowledge of the ignorant…They are all things uncontrollable that we want to control…The yogi looks within; hence shuthis eyes. The yogini makes him open his eyes, look at the sky…” (322-323)
I’ve been a fan of Devdutt’s since I chanced upon his Shiva: an Introduction (1997) in a Mumbai bookstore. I was eager to see how he would handle yoga mythology. I find that what I like most in this book is not so much the connection of stories with asana, but his discussions of the feminine, through the figures of the Devi and the yogini. Fan or new reader, I am sure you will find things you like too.
Zo Newell is a writer and certified yoga therapist. Her first book, Downward Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis was published in 2007 and its sequel, Flying Monkeys, Floating Stones: More Wisdom Tales, is slated for publication in spring 2020. She has written numerous articles for Yoga International exploring the interface of asana and Indian mythology. She holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Vanderbilt University.