The story behind Astavakrasana

Astavakrasana, the posters pose  ( marketing material), but the story behind Astavakrasana is one of my favorites! Do I say that every time? Cause it’s true, they’re all my favorites. I have a hard time making decisions…

This pose may seem intimidating: it’s an arm balance, a twist, and a hip opener all rolled into one. But once you understand how to get into it, it isn’t as challenging as it looks. I’ve actually included a video at the end of this post that’ll help you get into the pose. And the whole idea of the pretzel-like pose being easier to achieve than it seems is extra appropriate because this story is the yogi version of ‘don’t judge a pose by its picture’.

Just like Hanumanasana and Virabhadrasana, Astavakrasana is named after a person. This time, he’s a sage. Asta means eight and Vakra means bent because this sage was born with a crippled body bent in eight places.

The story behind Astavakrasana starts when he’s in the womb. Astavakra used to hear his father reciting The Vedas (an ancient text), but he kept messing up the words. So, one day, from the womb, Astavakra corrected his father’s pronunciation. You know, as babies do.

Of course, no father wants to be corrected by his child, especially one as young as this and in a moment of weakness when Kahoda felt particularly humiliated he cursed his son to be born with a crippled body.

Despite his crippled body Astavakra was a gifted child (which you may have guessed since he knew The Vedas before he was even born). So, when he grew up, wanted to go to King Janaka’s court because that’s where all the most knowledgeable and philosophical men met to discuss important things, and he wanted to listen and learn. [Janaka, by the way, is the father to Sita. Small world right!?

It took a long time for Astavakra to get to the King’s place, because it was so difficult for him to walk, even with a walking stick. And when he arrived, everyone started laughing at him, because of his body. Understandably, this rattled Astavakra and he began to cry.

Astavakra told the king how disappointed he was, saying he had expected to find wise men who were enlightened but instead all he saw were shoemakers. When the king asked what the heck he was talking about Astavakra replied:

“They see only skin. They do not see the Atma, the soul. They have no realization of the soul and the Supreme Soul. They merely see the surface and base their judgments solely on this. This is the occupation of a cobbler, who is always saying: ‘This skin is good; that skin is not good. This one is smooth; that one is rough.’ Coming here has been a waste of time.”

King Janaka bowed down to Astavakra and asked to be his student instead.

What did I learn from the Sage Astavakra?

My journey in yoga has been about strength. Not only physical strength but mental, emotional and spiritual strength. I was the weakest person in the room when I first started practicing. I mean that in every way—not only could I not lift up and jump back, but I also used to fall apart emotionally all the time. Twenty-five years later I am stronger than I ever thought I would be. More than just handstands and arm balances, I learned how to believe in myself and never give up. And if there is one thing I’m sure about, it’s that if I did so can you!

But if you become too concerned with the physical aspect you can cross that line and become obsessed with your body and with others’ bodies. And what we should never do is judge the soul by what the body can do, or how it looks.

Astavakra reminds me that true yogis can come in all shapes and sizes and even if you can do a perfect Down Dog, the real work is internal.

“Our flexibility is measured not by the length of our muscles, but by our willingness to step up to our challenges.”

The pose astavakrasana encapsulates these lessons too. What appears as a very difficult pose (with bends in eight places) is actually very accessible, but only if we pay attention to technique and work gently, with patience and humility. The pose teaches us that, even when things seem hard and convoluted, the path is less arduous than it seems if we arrange our effort just so.

So that’s how the story behind Astavakrasana goes. Is it your favorite? Or one of your favorites? As promised, the video’s below to show you how to get into this pretzel-looking pose. Let me know if you try it!