If you want to start exploring the philosophical aspects of yoga, begin with the Sanskrit names of each pose. These poses are much more than just a shape to get our bodies into. Rather, each asana (or pose) holds meaning that’s intended to connect us to our deeper beings and to help us explore the big life questions.
Yoga asana differentiates itself from other forms of movement because of its ancient and sacred nature. The philosophical aspects of yoga can be accessed through scriptures and, probably most obviously, through Sanskrit.
Sanskrit is one of the oldest languages in the world. All ancient yogic texts were written in Sanskrit, and over the centuries, Sanskrit still remains the language used for the practice.
Some pose names relate to Hindu philosophy. They honor deities of all sorts through myths and stories. Hanumanasana (sometimes simply called the splits, or full splits) honors the monkey god Hanuman.
What’s In a Name? The Etymology of Hanuman
Although it’s unclear where the name of the deity truly originates from, one story tells it as follows:
Before actually becoming a deity, Hanuman was called Anjaneya after his mother (who is also called Anjaneya). He is also the son of Vayu, the god of the wind. As a demi-god child, he was known for his love of food and one day mistook the sun for a fruit.
Feeling a little too greedy, he jumped to reach for the sun, ready to take a bite. There are two versions of what followed his leapy jump:
- Some say he was hit by Indra, the keeper of the clouds who lived in the sky, and this marked his jaw
- Others argue that the sun god (Surya) hit him with a lightning bolt, distorting his jaw
And this is how his name came to be. In Sanskrit, “hanu” means jaw. And the suffix “-man” indicates someone having an unusual or marked body part. Ultimately, “hanuman” refers to a man with a disfigured jaw.
Because of his big leap, he was also nicknamed “powerful monkey,” hence why you’ve likely seen the visual representation of Hanuman as a monkey.
Hanuman’s Courage, Power, and Devotion
Many of the stories relating to Hanuman tell tales of extreme courage and power. Another word often associated with him is devotion.
Each asana holds meaning that’s intended to connect us to our deeper beings and to help us explore the big life questions.
When his power is needed (such as his ability to take great leaps from Earth into the skies), he doesn’t question or doubt the importance of the task. After all, if someone is willing to take a leap into the skies to only get fruit, you can imagine what they would do if the mission was bigger, more important, and had more consequences.
One of the myths about the god Hanuman that shows exactly this is how he helped his friend King Rama.
The Story of the Monkey God and His Giant Leap of Faith
King Rama’s wife, Sita, was taken hostage by the demon Ravana on the island of Lanka (now Sri Lanka). So Rama entrusted Hanuman with the task of crossing from India to Lanka to rescue Sita.
The story says that Hanuman kneeled down in Virasana (Hero Pose!) once he reached the shore of Southern India. He gathered strength in meditation, remembered his devotion to his friend Rama, and simply took the leap over the ocean to go and save Sita.
Because of this, Hanuman is a metaphor for courage and power but also devotion.
This is represented by the physical expression of this myth, the yoga pose Hanumanasana. The monkey god had extremely strong motives to jump over to the other side of the sea, and that’s what fueled his energy and ability to jump over to the other shore.
How many times do we face our own big seas? How often do we have to focus back on our initial intentions and motives in order to take leaps of faith, like Hanuman? This deity’s story reminds us of that.
Hanumanasana Versus Splits: Same . . . but Different
Often, a one-hour yoga class isn’t enough to go into the depths of yogic philosophy. This is how a powerful pose like Hanumanasana easily becomes “splits” and loses a lot of its, well, power.
Splits is a gymnastics exercise often completed for aesthetics and flexibility rather than as a way to embody power. Hanumanasana, on the other hand, incarnates the ideas behind the monkey god: power, courage, devotion.
When you practice Hanumanasana (or one of its variations like Anjaneyasana), focus on pulling your thigh bones into your hip sockets. This will activate the muscles around your hips and thighs to build strength. (The kind of strength our sedentary modern bodies can never have too much of.)
When you’re in Hanumanasana, remember Hanuman’s energy and devotion.
This kind of strength is also the strength the monkey god needed to jump to get the sun he thought was a fruit and to rescue Sita, Rama’s wife.
So when you’re in Hanumanasana, remember Hanuman’s energy and devotion to his friend. And use the shape your body takes to gather your will power and courage. Imagine yourself like Hanuman, taking that leap of faith over to the other shore.
The Takeaway on the Monkey God, Hanuman and the Pose Hanumanasana
When it comes to Hanumanasana, whether or not you can get into what is commonly referred to as “the full pose” doesn’t really matter.
What does matter is the intention you put into your practice and how you use the opportunity of being in such a shape to fire up your sense of will power, courage, and devotion – both in the pose, and in any challenges you may face in your life.