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  • Writer's pictureMonkey Mala

What's with the monkey?

Monkey Mala? But why?

Because he's my hero.

In their truly wonderful and inspiring book, Myths of the Asanas, Alanna Kaivalya and Arjuna van der Kooij tell the story of three poses: Hanumanasa, anjaneyasana & virasana. I’m going to let them do the talking and hopefully you can see why we chose our name. "These three poses are grouped together because they all illustrate the story of the beloved monkey god, Hanuman. Hanumanasana, the pose that bears his name, is a full split, facing forward. Anjaneyasana is a deep, kneeling lunge and virasana is a seated pose designed to stretch the thighs and create healthy knee joints.

"All three poses stretch the psoas muscle, which runs from the middle of the spine to the inner thigh. This muscle gets a particularly intense stretch in virasana when one reclines. This very deep core muscle initiates all of our movements, and it is pivotal in the fight-or-flight response that is built into our bodies. For many people, the fight-or-flight response is almost continuously stimulated by a low-grade application of stress, which is so much a part of Western lifestyles, and results in a chronically locked psoas. The effects of stress are augmented by our daily habit of sitting for long periods of time on chairs, which also shortens and tightens this long, rope-like muscle. "Because of its relation to the fight-or-flight response, which typically engages when we are fearful, the psoas is where we generally hide fear. The process of opening the psoas and encouraging its release through these three related poses gives us an opportunity to physically shed our fears and move into a state of fearlessness. And that state is exactly what Hanuman embodies. Fearless Monkey "Anjana was a beautiful woman who deeply desired to become a mother, so she prayed daily for the miracle of a child. The wind god Vayu admired Anjana very much, and when he heard her prayer, he decided to help her out. He blessed a few grains of rice and sent them with his bird friends, who were flying her way. Anjana was engaged in her daily prayer ritual. She had her arms stretched upward in anjali mudra, ready to receive the grace of God, when she received a few grains of rice instead. She knew better than to question what came to her through prayer, so she opened her mouth and tossed in the rice. Upon her consumption of the blessed rice, she became pregnant.

"When her baby Anjaneya (which means “son of Anjana”) was born, he was quite a precocious youngster. He was half mortal and half divine, since Vayu was his father. His demigod status is what often led him into big trouble. One morning Anjaneya woke up and saw what he thought was a giant mango floating in the sky. Since mangoes were his favorite treat, he immediately leapt up into the sky and rushed toward the fruit, not realizing it was actually the sun. When the sun god Sur ya saw this little troublemaker racing to take a big bite out of him, he threw a lightning bolt, which hit the boy in the jaw, killing him instantly and sending him tumbling to the ground.

"When Vayu learned what Surya had done, his great fury made him take a deep breath. It was so deep that he sucked up all the air from the earth, and all the beings began to suffocate. The gods called an emergency meeting to try and placate both Vayu and Surya and restore order. Vayu refused to exhale until he got his son, Anjaneya, back. But Sur ya didn't want this potentially dangerous child running around unrestrained.

"Finally, an agreement was reached. Anjaneya would be renamed Hanuman, which referred to the broken jaw he received from the lightning bolt (hanuh means "jaw" in Sanskrit). He would be revived, but cursed with short-term memory so that he would never recall his godliness long enough to cause any real harm. If he believed himself to be just a mortal, what damage could he possibly do?

"And finally, he would be removed from his mother's care so that he could start a new life. The trusted monkey king, Sugriva, agreed to take Hanuman under his wing, and the little boy took the shape of a monkey to better match his new family.

Monkey's Best Friend

"Hanuman grew to be an invaluable asset to the proud warriors of the monkey clan. One day as he was wandering through the forest, he met King Ram. The connection between the two was instantaneous. Hanuman immediately swore to never leave Ram's side, and Ram trusted him implicitly. The two were inseparable, as close as peas in a pod.

"Ram had a wife named Sita, who was known for her beauty and heavenly qualities. It wasn't long before the evil demon Ravana grew uncontrollably jealous of the couple. His envy blinded his good judgment, and he went to war to take over Ram's kingdom and kidnapped Sita for himself, taking her to his island kingdom of Lanka. Ram had to lead his troops into battle to protect his land, so he couldn't go save the lovely Sita. In his place he sent his good friend Hanuman to rescue her.

"Hanuman took off for the tip of the subcontinent with no idea how he would accomplish his task, but he knew he must do it. His sheer love for his best friend helped him overcome any doubts he had about his own abilities. When Hanuman reached the coast and looked out over the great, vast ocean toward the island of Lanka, he knelt down in prayer. The pose he knelt in, with one knee up and one knee folded under, inspired the original virasana. He closed his eyes and prayed to be filled with the grace it would take to do the impossible. During his prayer, his unwavering faith never faltered. When he felt as if he had summoned enough energy, he pressed his feet firmly into the ground with such force that it caused a shock wave to ripple through the land, flattening the trees and hills behind him. He was propelled into the air and soared toward Lanka over the open sea.

The Faithful Hero

"It is important to remember that when Hanuman knelt down to pray for the grace to accomplish the impossible, he was already capable of achieving his goal. As the son of the wind, Hanuman could do anything. He could grow very large or very small, move mountains, and even change his shape all together. But he was constantly forgetting his divinity, and so he turned to his faith— which in Sanskrit we call shraddha—to give him the confidence to do what he knew he must accomplish. Many of us shrink before impossible tasks, or even tasks that are just a bit hard, because we are just like Hanuman. We easily forget that there is a part of us that is also divine and can accomplish the impossible. And we forget about the element of shraddha, which is ingrained in every human heart, just as it was within Hanuman's.

"Throughout human history, there has always been some form of prayer to give human beings the space and time to grow that element of faith within their hearts. It is with faith and hope that we can go forth with confidence and leap across oceans, change the world, or simply fall back in love.

Soaring to New Heights

"As he flew over the ocean toward his destiny , one of Hanuman's feet reached forward and one foot reached back, like the famous split pose, hanumanasana, that yogis know today. Despite encountering numerous obstacles, including a demon that rose from the water to try and gobble him up, Hanuman landed confidently on the island of Lanka. He searched until he discovered Sita in the gardens of Ravana's palace and transformed himself into a cat in order to sneak in and let her know that Ram would be coming to save her. She gave him her hairpin to let Ram know that he'd found her and Hanuman gave Sita Ram's ring as a promise of her future rescue. And rescue her they did. Eventually Ram brought the war to Ravana's doorstep, and with Hanuman's help, Ravana was defeated and Sita was saved.

"When balance and peace were restored to the land, Ram held a great gathering back at his palace and asked Hanuman to be his guest of honor. Hanuman was called up to be awarded and Ram presented him with his very own precious gem-encrusted gold bracelet. The audience gasped in awe and pride at this divine exchange, but Hanuman gazed curiously at the bangle. He knocked on it and chewed it with his teeth. When some gems popped off, he used them to try and peer more closely at the gold but looked dissatisfied at what he didn't find. Ram, Sita, and the onlookers were shocked at Hanuman's seeming ungratefulness. Ram asked Hanuman why he was so unhappy with his gift.

"Hanuman looked at Ram and explained, "Ram every moment, I chant your name. I chant your name so I can constantly remember how much I love you. I chant your name so much that even the fibers of my heart have your name written upon them. This bracelet is worth nothing to me if it does not bear your name. Here, let me show you." It was then that Hanuman knelt down in front of Ram and Sita, dug his fingers into his chest, and opened it up to reveal the contents of his heart. Inside were Ram and Sita, perfect and complete, and on every fiber of Hanuman's heart was written Ram's name. With each "thump-thump," the chant "Ram, Ram quietly sounded.

The Constant One

"Hanuman's journey, as recounted in the Ramayana (the epic tale of Ram), is one of faith, fearlessness, and complete devotion. Hanuman is said to embody all of the qualities of the yogi, and his story reflects our own in many ways. How many times have we forgotten our own divinity only to fall back into the same self-defeating way of thinking over and over? Who hasn't had a crisis of faith and wondered if some burden wasn't too great to bear, or whether some task wasn't impossible to complete? Hanuman teaches us that there is one thing that allows us to override all of our doubts and fears. That one thing is love.

"The tradition of bhakti yoga is focused on cultivating this attitude so perfectly that all our fears and doubts fall away, and we are left only with the remembrance of our true self. The tool of the bhakti yogi is the repetition of a mantra, or a short phrase which focuses one's attention on an object of devotion. For Hanuman the object of devotion was Ram, so he chanted his name repeatedly. His poor memory meant that he would often forget his task or associations, but he always remembered his best friend. And so he began and ended every sentence with Ram's name. Every spare moment he had, he chanted it. Eventually, every fiber of his being pulsed with Ram's name, and that perfect attention caused his soul to merge with the object of his devotion to embody love itself, which is why Ram and Sita reside inside his heart.

"Many yoga practitioners are discovering the power of chant to call up deep and joyful emotions. Whether simply listening to chant music or participating in kirtans (call-and-response style singing), it is easy for practitioners to feel the effects of that repetition. These exercises are related to the deeper experience of mantra recitation, which many yogis use during their meditation. Mantras can be repeated out loud, sung as part of a song, or repeated silently to oneself. They are designed to liberate us from the fear and illusion that keep us small, allowing us to manifest our fully realized potential. The word "mantra" is derived from manas (“mind") and trava ("liberate"), meaning "that which liberates the mind." The key factor to success in yoga is the consistency of the repetition. When the practice is constant, the coming is inevitable. And what comes, as Hanuman found, is the undeniable presence of complete compassion and the melting of fear.

The Hero Inside

"Each of Hanuman's poses embodies the fearlessness, bravery, strength, friendship, and compassion that he so clearly expressed through each of his adventures. Vira, the root word of “virasana,” is Sanskrit for “hero.” One way to embody that word is to be full of faith. It is said that the difference between the hero and the coward is that the hero acts. When fear stops most, the hero, filled with faith, pursues the seemingly impossible, knowing that it is the only way to soar to new heights. Fear can keep us small or challenge us to rise above the meekness. The poet Andrea Gibson writes, "I don't believe in miracles because miracles are the impossible coming true, and everything is possible." It is this kind of possibility that infuses each of the poses dedicated to Hanuman. Each addresses, in some way, our power to overcome fear and gives us an opportunity to create space for the impossibilities in our lives.

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