Fly Like an Eagle: The Eagle Pose and the Mythology of GarudasanaNov 01, 2023 06:00AM ● By Sheila Ewars
In cultures around the world, the eagle has long been a symbol of strength, vision and perseverance. In Greek mythology, the Aetos Dios, a giant eagle, serves as Zeus’s constant companion and messenger. In Native American folklore, the eagle flies between heaven and earth, carrying messages from the people to God. In Aztec culture, the sun-god Hiutzilopochtli takes the form of an eagle in a well-known prophecy that leads to the settlement of Mexico. And in Norse mythology, the storm god Thiassi often appears as an eagle to take in a view of the entire planet. In India, Indonesia and Southeast Asia, tales of the powerful eagle, Garuda, have inspired state symbols, a national airline, peacekeeping forces and even a yoga pose.
According to the Mahabharata, one of the primary mythological texts of Hinduism, Garuda emerged from his eggshell with the body of a man and the head and wings of an eagle, more radiant than the sun and larger than all of the devas, or gods, in heaven. When Indra, the king of the heavens, and all the other devas beheld his bright shining light, they went blind and sent messengers to extol his virtues and to implore him to reduce his brightness so that they would not be burned by his radiance. In humility and obedience, Garuda complied with their request, diminishing his light and size a thousandfold.
Meanwhile, Garuda’s mother, Vinata, had lost a wager to her sister, who was the mother of 1000 serpent sons called “the Nagi.” She became their prisoner and servant, compelled to do their bidding in all things, and eventually, the diminished Garuda joined her in servitude. One day, having grown tired of obeying the commands of his serpent cousins and eager to free his mother and himself, Garuda asked the Nagi to propose a price for freedom. The Nagi told Garuda that if he could steal the nectar of immortality, amrita, from heaven, he and his mother would be set free.
To steal the nectar, Garuda had to fight against the entire army of heavenly guards. He first resumed his full size and radiance, flapping his wings and blinding his opponents with the dust from the earth until they scattered in all directions. When he reached the amrita, he found it surrounded on all sides by great flames reaching up to the sky. Garuda made his mouth very large, flew away and swallowed the contents of many rivers to extinguish the flames. Then, confronted by a wheel with razor-sharp edges spinning very fast to block access to the nectar, he assumed a tiny form and quickly flew between the spokes. He broke open the mechanism that was guarding the amrita and rose to the skies, carrying the vessel in his claws.
Eventually, Indra struck a deal with Garuda so that he could take back the nectar of immortality from the serpents, but he allowed Garuda to deliver it first and ransom his mother. As a reward for his selflessness and courage, Garuda then became the vehicle and companion to Vishnu, helping him to preserve the Universe.
The Eagle Pose on the Mat
When we practice Garudasana on the yoga mat, we embody the qualities and stories of this great mythical being. The pose involves a shrinking of sorts as we cross our arms and legs and hug everything to the midline, folding the body into a smaller shape than is comfortable, while tenuously balancing on one foot. The philosophy of yoga teaches us that this “shrinking” is part of our human condition. The soul is unbounded, infinite and as vast as the ocean, but through birth, we take on a limited form and often forget our own magnificence. We learn to play small, as Garuda did, to fit in and please those around us. To gain eternity, we need only remember our true nature. When we heed the call of our higher consciousness, we are freed from the cycle of rebirth just as Garuda’s mother is freed from servitude.
In Garudasana, entangled in our own limbs, we remember how we have diminished ourselves. Our sight is limited by the tangled arms and hands before us, and our breath is more difficult to fully access. When we release and stand fully expanded and upright, we remind ourselves that it is our nature to be fully open and free from the bonds that restrain us.
Try it yourself and see how it feels!
- From standing Mountain pose, bend your right knee slightly. Lift your left foot off of the mat and cross your left leg over your right. You can allow the toes of the left foot to gently touch the floor to assist with balance, or you can wrap your toes behind your lower right calf. Once the legs are fully engaged, bend your right knee more deeply.
- Reach both arms wide with palms facing outward. Then scoop your left arm under your right and nestle the right elbow into the crook of the left arm. Press your forearms together with the backs of your hands pressing into each other. If possible, cross your forearms and press your palms together. Lift your elbows to the same height as your shoulders
- Hold for five to seven breaths.
Then untangle the arms and legs and return to Mountain pose. Give yourself a
few moments to savor the feeling of spaciousness and release, then repeat on
the other side.
For an extra challenge, try shrinking even more:
- When you are fully in Garudasana, exhale and lean your torso forward until you can press your elbows or forearms against the top of your thigh. Hold for five breaths, then inhale and rise. Unwind your arms and legs and remain in mountain pose for a few breaths before repeating on the opposite side. ❧
Sheila Ewers, ERYT500, YACEP,
owns Blue Lotus Yoga in Johns Creek. A former professor of writing and
literature, she leads group and private lessons, yoga philosophy workshops,
yoga teacher training and retreats. Contact Sheila at [email protected].