The quips and anecdotes our teachers dutifully attempt to pass on to us in asana class are but appetizers. In an intense class, we may spend 20 or so breaths in the infamous pose, hanumanasana (casually called the splits). This is not enough time to scratch the surface of the legendary acts of courage and devotion that define Hanuman's character. But those who know the story wish to honor it and inspire their students with it, so we do the best we can in 20 breaths to give you the Reader's Digest version. We hear about how the splits resemble the form of the body in the midst of a leap taken by a brave monkey named Hanuman. Sometimes, if we speak extraordinarily quickly we can squeeze in something about how he was helping his friend and saving a princess. Meanwhile, many students are so focused on their uncooperative hamstrings that only bits and pieces of the already condensed story even register. Furthermore, we don't know who the friend or the princess were or why they needed to be saved in the first place.
Don't blame the teacher for being a poor storyteller. They are guiding you toward an exploration that must take place off of your yoga mat. They are leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that leads to the Ramayana. In case you are unfamiliar with the Ramayana, think of it as THE epic story, one that is brimming with action, inspiration, sorrow, victory, courage, devotion, and a million little metaphors that parallel everyday life and conscious decision making. It is the source of many yoga pose names- Hanumanasana (splits), Vasistasana (side plank), Chandrasana (half and full moon), Virasana (hero pose), Tadasana (mountain pose), Garudasana (eagle pose), and many more. If you haven't read it yet, it's time. Don't wait.
To illustrate what you've been missing by settling for the appetizers, I have transcribed a small piece of just one momentous chapter of the Ramayana, Hanuman's Jump. Remember, this is just the beginning of his leap. To find out what spurred him to greatness and what he finds when he lands on the shore of Lanka, you'll have to read the Ramayana for yourself. See the bottom of this post to find out how to get your own copy.
Hanuman’s Jump (excerpt from "Ramayana" retold by William Buck)
Hanuman stood on the hilltop. He held his breath and sucked in his stomach. He frisked his tail and raised it a little at the end. He bent his knees and swung back his arms, and on one finger gleamed Rama’s gold ring. Then without pausing to think he drew in his neck, laid back his ears and jumped. It was grand! It was the greatest leap ever taken. The speed of Hanuman’s jump pulled blossoms and flowers into the air after him and they fell like little stars on the waving treetops. The animals on the beach had never seen such a thing; they cheered Hanuman, then the air burned from his passage, and red clouds flamed over the sky and Hanuman was far out of sight and land. That white monkey was like a comet, pushing the sky from his way and bumping the clouds aside. The wind roared under his arms and was pushed away from his breast as he passed, and made the ocean pitch and roll. Sea spray rose and steamed up the sun. Beneath Hanuman as he went, the green salt water parted, and he could see the whales and fish like people surprised at home. The air around Hanuman became electric, and sheets of light gathered and crackled- blue, and pale melon green, and flickering orange and red. Halfway across to Lanka, the golden mountain Mainaka lived on the ocean floor, and from under sea he saw Hanuman coming and thought he would be tired. Mainaka spread his glistening golden wings, rose from his watery bed and surfaced on the sea. Water poured from his shining sides and looming up against the blue sky he spoke to Hanuman. “Rest awhile,” said Mainaka. “Let me repay my ancient debt to your father the Wind.” Hanuman stopped and leaned on the air. “Who are you?” “I am Mainaka, the son of Himavan the Mountain King, the brother of Ganga the beautiful river Goddess. I have long hidden deep in the ocean from fear of Indra. In return for the sea’s faithful protection, I have stayed as an outer gate against the Asuras from under Earth, who dare not approach me. Come down onto me, land and rest.” Hanuman asked, “What did my father do for you?” Mainaka said, “In the olden days, long ago, all the large mountains of earth had wings like I do. We flew where we wanted, but when we landed we were sometimes a little careless. We bowled over the little hills and flattened kingdoms as flat as a floor. We got a bad name with the forest men, and they complained to Indra. The with furious thunderbolts the Lord of Heaven cut off our wings, till out of all the hills only I could still fly. When Indra chased me the Wind carried me away, and here I took refuge of the sea. The wings of the broken mountains have now become clouds. So blessed be you, gentle Hanuman, rest and continue refreshed.” “Forgive me, but I must not break my flight,” said Hanuman. He only touched that golden hill with his fingertip and sped away to the South. When he had gone, Indra came from heaven and told Mainaka, “Keep your wings if you will, for you welcomed Hanuman and you have cared to keep him from danger,” and Mainaka went back below the waves. In the strong sea-currents that lay twenty leagues off Lanka lived the old Rakshasi Sinhika. She saw Hanuman flying and said, “This is the strangest bird I’ve seen in eight hundred years!” She swam to the surface and seized his shadow, and in the air Hanuman felt himself being dragged down and held back. Sinhika stood on the water holding Hanuman’s shadow in her claws and looking at him with tiny red eyes. She opened her ugly mouth and bared her scaly yellow teeth, and started to pull at his shadow. “Watch out!” said Hanuman. “Beware, I am on Rama’s service, and his kingdom is all the world...” She pulled him closer. “You can never escape me!” “Oh yes, I will if I want to!” She saw how large Hanuman was and opened her mouth wide as a cave with a long tongue. But Hanuman became quickly as small as a thumb and flew down her throat like a tiny hurricane. He crushed her heart with his sharp fingernails, turned, and darted up out from her ear. Sinhika threw her arms about and collapsed on the sea. Her blood burst and spread though the water, and the fish came quickly to eat her. Then Hanuman regained his jumping size and flew on in the sky, where birds and rainbows gleam, where heroes ride in bright chariots drawn by miraculous lions, where the smoke of fires rises, and the rains and winds live. He went on through the pure sky embellished by planets and stars and luminous saints and by the holy Sun and Moon, the support and glorious canopy of this live world, the sky made and well made by Lord Brahma long ago.
*Note- I get no commission from sales! These are just convenient sources. You can probably find a copy at your local library. Whatever the source, just get reading! The depth of your understanding of yoga nearly depends on it!
**I happen to prefer the version written by William Buck. If you have another source you'd like to share, please reply to this post with the info!
As always, thanks for reading!