In a yoga class last week, I had a mini-lesson on the power of myth to shape our point of view and the enriched understanding to be gained from studying world cultures.
Our teacher announced at the start of class that she had designed the practice to warm us up for Hanumanasana by the end of the hour. Responding to groans from several students and perplexed silence from others, she explained that this is the posture known to Americans as “the splits.”
In the lexicon of yoga, however, Hanumanasana posture is named for the powerful Hindu monkey deity, Hanuman. One of the stories in The Ramayana epic describes how Prince Rama sends his army of monkeys to seek his kidnapped wife, Sita. From a vulture, they learn that Sita has been carried off to Lanka (Sri Lanka) by the demon god Ravana. Hanuman makes “the greatest leap ever taken,” or the flying splits, across the ocean to Lanka and finds Sita imprisoned within Ravana’s palace. He promises he will return with Prince Rama and an army to save her. After “leaping” back to the mainland, he gathers Rama and a mighty force of monkeys and bears. Obviously lacking the gymnastic ability of Hanuman, they build a bridge across the ocean to Lanka and following a bloody battle, Rama and Sita are joyfully re-united.
As a teenage gymnast with tight hips, I struggled for years to achieve the splits with ease. It was a frustrating ordeal and the exercise I dreaded most. If I had only heard of Hanuman back in those days, I would have thought of this epic hero and viewed the splits as I now joyfully practice Hanumanasana, as part of a difficult discipline that teaches perseverance and builds qualities needed to confront and surmount challenges.
Like the animal protagonists in mythology the world over, Hanuman has his real-life counterpart, the Hanuman Langur of India and other regions of southeast Asia. Befitting his mythic dimension, the Langur is considered sacred in many parts of India, although even spiritual reverence does not halt human incursion into its natural habitat. Fortunately, India’s national parks and wildlife preserves provide protective enclaves and enable visitors to view the magnificent creatures that have inspired such imaginative characters in religion, literature and art.