Yoga symbols are a core area of yoga. They are abundant; there is a large variety of them, all of which are meaningful and have their own special significance. Yoga symbols have been used in the discipline since people first starting using it. For those who aren’t familiar with it, yoga is a discipline that can best be described as a way to exercise the body, mind and soul all at the same time. The Hinduism based practice, which can also arguably be considered a sport, originated in ancient India. However, it has been growing in ever increasing popularity throughout the United States over the past couple of years and yoga symbols have been showing up more and more in Western pop culture. It is not uncommon to see tattoos of Sanskrit symbols and phrases, which is the primary liturgical language of Hinduism and Buddhism. In fact, it is one of the most popular types of tattoos, and there are even some well-known celebrities that sport Sanskrit ink on their bodies.
You can’t understand yoga symbols without understanding yoga
Before I delve into the various yoga symbols and their meanings, I feel it is important to briefly explain the basic principles of yoga in order to give a basic understanding of what it is all about. Yoga is all about meanings and symbolism. Even the different types of yoga themselves all stand for their own unique purposes and goals and things. Whether you are using it to tone up, help yourself get into a meditative healing state or get a good workout, there is something for everyone. Yoga can be a gentle way to relieve some stress or it can be a challenging workout. Bikram yoga, more well known as “hot yoga”, is one such example of a rigorous form of yoga. It is a comprehensive workout focusing on all components of fitness, such as muscular strength and endurance, cardiovascular health, and flexibility; all of this is done in a room with the heat cranked up to anywhere between 95 to 105 degrees. Hatha and Integral yoga are two forms of yoga popular in the United States that give a strong focus on self-restoration, posture and stress management. The goal of these tamer types of yoga is to promote relaxation and self-realization.
As stated earlier, yoga symbols have been emerging in the Western pop culture scene more and more frequently. The best example of this is the way yoga has grown in popularity in the United States. It has been on the rise and grown exponentially since the early 21st century. The discipline has become a common practice and a core activity in many people’s lives; it is even a necessity for some, as there are a ton of people who swear by it. The practice of yoga is teeming with symbolism. In fact, you actually become the symbol, because the different poses used in yoga are symbols within themselves, representing different animals, fixtures in nature, and human figures and conditions. Yoga postures and Sanskrit symbols are seen on tattoos, t-shirts, in movies, on TV and mentioned in music. We are actually exposed to yoga symbols more often than we think.
How to better understand yoga symbols
A great example of the symbolism in yoga poses are the different life cycle poses. The Striking Warrior pose, a series of three different poses repeated in the sun salutation, recalls the journey of Shiva the destroyer. The story of Shiva is that he becomes vengeful when he is not invited to a sacrifice by the God Daksa and his sweat becomes the demon Virabhadra, who then beheads Daksa and replaces his head with that of a goat. The story is gruesome, but reminds us that our life cycle inevitably leads to death. The Striking Warrior pose is meant to help us accept this with wisdom and a calm mind. Other poses that represent the life cycle are the Happy Baby, in which you lie on your back and play with your toes, and the Corpse pose, which requires lying still and quiet on your back.
One of the most popular and most recognized yoga symbols throughout the world is the Sanskrit symbol for Om (known fully as Omkara and pronounced as oh-m). It’s considered to be a mystical and sacred syllable. It is also known as Aum (fully worded as Aumkara) or, in the Sanskrit language, pranava. Its Devanagari (an abugida alphabet from India and Nepal) symbol is represented by what looks like a large number three, with an equally large tail curling underneath itself that emerges directly below the crease of the three. A diamond in a half circle accentuates it by resting directly above everything. Many people will find it offensive if they see the Om symbol on feet, shoes, rugs, or anything else that has contact with the floor, due to its sacred role.
There is more to the yoga symbols Om and Aum than just the visual Sanskrit representation. It is, in fact, the most sacred symbol in Hinduism. It appears at the beginning of almost every Hindu text, and therefore is often chanted before yoga classes, and is always chanted before the reading of Hindu mantras and prayers. The chant is divided into three different sounds, which makes the Aum version the more accurate representation. It embodies the three deities in the Hindu Trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. It therefore symbolizes three different things: the beginning of life, the sustenance of the universe and the delicate balance of the time between creation and destruction, and the end of the universe. It is interesting to point out that the end of the Trinity, the destruction, is represented by Shiva, the god of destruction (who also has a role as Shiva the destroyer in the Striking Warrior pose mentioned earlier).
It is not a surprise that almost everything about yoga symbolizes something, as it is a Hindu based practice. Hinduism itself is full of symbolism. For example, there are the 108 beads in the mala, which is a sacred number in Hinduism. The mala is a rosary which is used to count repetitions of a mantra. Yoga is focused on aligning the chakras, all of which reside in their own particular parts of the body. The seven chakras carry a lot of symbolic weight as well.