The Modern Mythology of Yoga

Written by Derek Beres
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It was the stories that got me during those first months of college. I entered Rutgers in 1993 knowing nothing of who Jesus was, but could recite the batting averages of every player on the NY Mets bench from heart. A newfound friend handed me copies of the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada, and my mind was blown open. Although my scriptural knowledge of Americanized religion was lacking, I fully lived through polarizing dualities these faiths conjured: ultimate good and/or evil, as if one could not live in the grey. The doctrines handed me celebrated that blended shade. I realized then that religion was a choice, not a game where there are a few winners and a whole lot of losers.

It is the stories that we actually live, which is why mythology (along with theology) became my course of study. Take the world’s “oldest” myth: the epic of Gilgamesh. Most people that I mention this classic to recognize the name from high school, many remembering they really liked it, though what “it” was has not been retained. Yet it is the journey—the king’s epic battle with Enkidu, their subsequent friendship, the slaying of Humbaba, his loyal friend’s death and Gilgamesh’s ultimate quest (and failure) to attain immortality—that we relate to. The man had a vision and risked his life to see it come alive.

As Joseph Campbell wrote in Myths to Live By, “[The] recognition of mortality and the requirement to transcend it is the first great impulse of mythology.” Gilgamesh is eventually humbled, having his immortal flower stolen by a snake on the return home. Overall, you’d think he did pretty well, ruling his kingdom for 126 years. While transcending death might not be the foremost thought on our minds, the journey to something is a powerful catalyst that fuels and directs many of our lives. Human beings seem to function best when self-endowed with a sense of purpose. Stagnation is a curse, movement the antidote.

After teaching at the Yoga Sanctuary in Toronto this past weekend, somebody asked me about my sequencing. Mythology, I replied, was the driving force. While I’ve written about sequencing and music in previous posts, the underlying themes of my class are journeys. Ideally the ‘end’ of the practice is more weigh station than destination, a temporary stopover before returning to your larger quest. That does not detract from the importance of refueling, and so each hour I spend with students is in itself a microcosm of grander travels.

Yoga itself is rooted in mythology, predominantly from the grandest tale of war ever written, the Mahabharata. A tiny section of this work, the Bhagavad Gita, has introduced countless devotees to the philosophies of karma yoga. The folklore tells of the quest of five kingly brothers, one of whom, the archer Arjuna, is best known due to his yogic training with Krishna. In the end it is his elder brother Yudhishthira who survives to become Emperor of the World, but the monumental journey is what we relate to. It’s why Batman has been remade dozens of times and James Bond is approaching number 1,023. We want to see around the curve of their next bend. 

The greatest yoga classes that I’ve taken are ones in which I arrived at Savasana, not simply ending up there because that’s how every class ends. So the sequences that I teach have a purpose in mind, part of the reason that I’m constantly playing with different variations of the same postures every week as I map out that particular journey. Different transitions require different verbs. We’re telling stories with our bodies all of the time. The more control we have with them, the better the narration will be.

Gilgamesh’s failure turned out to be a triumph. As Stephen Mitchell points out in his translation, the “quest proves the futility of the quest.” There is no way to cheat death. The King of Uruk traveled across the world to learn that lesson. Only upon returning from the deep waters did he notice the beauty and splendor of his kingdom. It took him getting way out of himself to find what he’d always had.

This is essentially what I love about the yoga community: the reasons that people journey are diverse and unique. That we’re journeying together, regardless of destination, is a powerful reminder of what humanity can be if we forgo the goal and focus on the trail (and support others who need the help: Medicare, Medicaid, Planned Parenthood, NPR, et al). As Mitchell points out, “When there’s no way out, you just follow the way in front of you.”

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