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Why are So Many Yoga Poses Named after Animals?

Photo by BenGrantham/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by BenGrantham/iStock / Getty Images

Cats, cows, and cobras – oh my! Do you ever feel like you’re at the zoo during the middle of yoga class? Yoga asanas (or poses) include crow, eagle, downward dog, pigeon, lizard, dragon (okay, maybe that’s not a real animal), and so many others. This may lead you to ask: why are so many yoga poses named after animals?

While there is no foolproof answer, most theories revolve around the idea that ancient yogis mimicked what they saw around them. In those simpler times, it’s understandable that they would have had many encounters with various live animals. Maybe they were hunting them, avoiding them, or simply observing them. Regardless, it’s not just animals that they learned from. A number of other poses exist that resemble items around them. Think: tree, wheel, and mountain.

It appears that the ancient yogis found imitating animals to be an enlightening experience for both the body and mind.

Animals have ample opportunity to release their emotions and tension through hormonal changes in their bodies. We often call this the “fight or flight” response. For instance, snowshoe hares often face multiple predators at a time – any of whom might make them their dinner that day. Yet, they don’t get sick, they don’t die, they don’t become depressed. They continue living and reproducing. 

As humans, we often struggle to keep ourselves aligned – we do fall victim to that sickness, worry, and depression. The busyness and high stress levels we place on ourselves prevent us from becoming aware of our bodies’ sensations. 

So, it makes sense that the ancient yoga masters would have chosen to model their practice after the animals they observed – in the hopes of learning to balance their emotions and stress patterns. When we enter an animal-named pose, we both endure a physical exercise and experience a psychological exercise of embodying the symbolism of that particular animal.

Consider the cat, an expert in relaxation. On awakening from sleep, they instinctively stretch and arch their spine in both directions before softening and moving onward. Doesn’t it make sense, then, that we generally use cat as an “awakening” pose at the beginning of practice, gradually loosening our body?

Or think about the cobra as it slowly prepares itself for action. A rather vulnerable animal itself, the cobra cautiously readies itself for attack by raising its head. We, too, practice awakening our dormant energy in this pose, often using it as a prelude to a full chaturanga. 

When you think about it, many of our animal poses really do resemble the creature they’re named after. Next time your instructor calls out an animal pose, try to put yourself in that animal’s shoes (so to speak!) and consider why they do what they do. For example, dogs enter downward dog position when waking from a nap as a way to stretch. 

What’s your favorite animal pose?