Once upon a time, Shiva, the Lord of Yoga, became infuriated to discover that his beloved, Sati, had immolated herself with rage when her father, Daksha, insulted the couple by not inviting them to a party. Shiva yanked a great dreadlock out of his hair, threw it in on the ground, and the warrior Virabhadra appeared from the earth, sliced off Daksha’s head, and planted it on a stake. We gesture towards this story in our yoga classes every time we reach our arms up in Warrior One, turn sideways as if we had a great sword in Warrior Two, and then reach forward balancing on one leg in Warrior Three, as if to plant a severed head upon a giant stake. Ah, yoga story time.
The Warrior poses are central to most yoga practices, but we don’t often hear this bloody, passion-filled story within the context of our peaceful and loving practice. Miming placing a bloody head on a stake just doesn’t seem to complement the Om Shanti Om. It all turns out all right in the end, though: Daksha gets a new head—from a goat.
There are many stories like this in Hindu mythology and yoga philosophy. Yoga is a deep and complex practice of looking at yourself, and most of us are not constructed from rainbows and flowers. Our current yoga icon is a beautiful, flexible, thin (usually white) woman with a placid look on her face. This serene expression does not show the inner struggle that yoga invites us to walk straight into. Yoga, on occasion, even invites us to cut off our own heads.
There’s nothing wrong with practicing yoga for the physical benefits, of moving through some postures, getting your yoga high on, and getting the heck out of the studio. After a while, though, it becomes harder to avoid what the yoga is doing: inviting you to look at yourself. Through yoga, we learn to watch our reactions, we process emotions through our bodies, and best (and worst) of all, we get more honest about what we actually feel. It becomes harder to lie to ourselves.
Being mindful is not easy work. When you go deep enough to look at your own face, you may find that of wild-eyed, infuriated Shiva; the Goddess Kali with her blood-soaked tongue lolling out of her mouth; the new goat face of Daksha; or perhaps the face of the Vira, the warrior.
There’s a lot of beheading imagery in Hindu mythology—there’s even a goddess, Chinnamasta, who cuts off her own head gleefully. The head represents the ego, the habitual patterns that keep us stuck in the same old stories, and the ways we lie to ourselves. Cutting off our own heads requires the courage of a warrior.
Understanding yoga at the surface level, as a practice that will make you feel better, is not a bad thing, but it’s not at all where the story ends. The Vira gives us the strength to battle our inner demons. When we practice Warrior One, Two, and Three, we are the Vira that kills the ignorance, prejudice, and inflated ego within ourselves. When we practice Humble Warrior, bowing down to the inside of the front leg, head softening to the floor, we are the ignorance, fear, and ego that has been vanquished.
We need to be warriors of our inner selves on this path, and acknowledge that sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes we react the wrong way and, like Shiva, cut off someone else’s head without thinking. Sometimes our rage becomes a fire that transforms us, like it did with Sati. These violent myths can tell us a lot about our own selves—and the faces we see in the mirror are not always pretty. It takes courage to see your own worst self. Luckily, the path continues: We do this to move towards peace and compassion, and if you let a head roll a little too far, you can always replace it with a goat’s. There is probably much we could learn from walking around with the head of a goat. I’ll leave you with that image, and this poem from 13th-century Perisan poet Rumi:
The warriors tame
The beasts in their past
So that the night's hoofs
Can no longer break the jeweled vision
In the heart.
The intelligent and the brave
Open every closet in the future and evict
All the mind's ghosts who have the bad habit
Of barfing everywhere.
For a long time the Universe
Has been germinating in your spine.
But only a pir has the talent,
The courage to slay
The past-giant, the future anxieties.
Wisely sits in a circle
With other men
Gathering the strength to unmask
Like a great illumined planet on