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Shiva: The Original Yogi

Who is Lord Shiva and what does he have to do with Yoga? Shiva (sometimes spelled Siva), is known by many names, has an abundance of incarnations/avatars or forms and plays countless roles within Yoga and Hinduism. His name in Sanskrit can be translated in a multitude of ways, but is most commonly interpreted as the Auspicious One. He is also known as the Cosmic Dancer,  the Destroyer and the Adiyogi.

Along with the Aum (Om) symbol (ॐ) and Chakras, Shiva is one of the most frequently used images associated with Yoga. In this blog, we will be taking a look at how Shiva became the first Yogi and what his role within Yoga is. We will examine additional aspects of Shiva in upcoming blogs.

What is Yoga?

If you have read our previous blogs on Yoga, you might recall that Yoga was traditionally a spiritual path to self-realization. What many people consider the entirety of Yoga today, is really what we refer to as Yoga-As-Exercise. Originally, there were three possible spiritual paths, or Yogas. These were Bhakti, the path of devotion; Karma, the path of action; and Jnana, the path of knowledge (knowledge of the self specifically). Later, a fourth path was developed that came to be known as Raja Yoga, or Royal Yoga.

Raja Yoga provides a path that includes precepts for how to live by observing the Eight Limbs of Ashtanga. In contrast, today's modern Yoga focuses on just one of these limbs, which is known as Asana. Asana is a Sanskrit term which can be translated as posture or pose.

These four paths of Yoga are considered a recipe for living and being that helps you have a healthy, enjoyable and balanced life. The fruition of these practices are intended to lead to awakening or self-realization (we will take a look at each of these paths in upcoming blogs).

Who Is Shiva?

Shiva is part of the Trimurti. In modern Hinduism, the Trimurti consists of three Gods- Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. There are many, many other Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism, but the Trimurti are considered to be the most important in contemporary Hinduism. Which God is the most powerful or the most revered varies from region to region and sect to sect within Hinduism. In Hindu cosmology, it is believed that the universe exists in cycles (known as Kalpas) and is constantly being created, maintained and destroyed. Brahma is the creator of the Universe, Vishnu is the preserver of the Universe and Shiva is the destroyer of the Universe.

So, if Shiva is the destroyer, is he a negative force? Absolutely not. Hinduism is not like monotheistic (single God) religions where things are usually seen as black and white, all good or all bad. Shiva is a God rife with ambiguity and paradox, whose stories and characteristics often include opposing themes. He is frequently misunderstood and sensationalized, as are many Eastern practices. 

On first glance, he looks like someone that is dangerous, frequently depicted in fearsome ways- bloody and wearing skulls. He also seems to be bent on destruction. Well, he is bent on destruction, it's just not physical destruction. His imagery is symbolic. He is really all about our individual evolution, not clinging to our desires (Kama), as well as the dissolution of anything that is holding us back from becoming the best version of ourselves. 

In Hinduism, destruction is seen as a vital part of the natural cycle of all things in the Universe. It is not something to be feared or avoided, it is integral to the process. Just as nature needs decomposition to break down dead and decaying matter in the physical world, the destruction of all things in the Universe is seen as vital and paves the way for all things to be created anew by Brahma. This is Shiva's role in the Hindu trinity.  

 

Worshippers of Shiva are often called Shaivites and practice a form of Hinduism called Shaivism. The Shiva related traditions are a major part of Hinduism, found all over the Indian sub-continent. Shaivites are a group of people that are also often misunderstood due to their unconventional ways. Whether these be the ascetics, performing austerities because they have renounced worldly life, sometimes seen wandering the world stark naked; or the Sadhus who cover their bodies in ashes from the cremation grounds, the ashes representing the impermanence of material existence. Many regard them and their practices as quite odd. These extreme and seemingly eccentric forms of worship are not standard for the average person, yet they have become the image many westerners associate with the religion. 

It makes sense that Shiva and those who follow his teachings are often misinterpreted in the West because he is associated with things we would find to be negative, like decay and annihilation. What people often miss, is that this destruction is not a tool of violence, but a tool to bring about personal change and transformation. For as the Auspicious One, growth and transformation are what Shiva is all about. The cycle of birth, death and rebirth never ending. 

Shiva and Yoga

Within Shaivism, there is a text called the Vijñāna-Bhairava-Tantra. This sacred text is a dialog between Bhairava and Bhairavi, who are avatars of Shiva and his wife, Parvati. During this conversation, Bhairavi asks Bhairava how to reach self-realization. Through this exchange, he outlines the different stages of Yoga, from poses and breath control to Kundalini energy and meditation. He explains that the practice of Yoga culminates in the disillusionment of the self, a complete withdrawal of the senses and nondual awareness, thus attaining Moksha (enlightenment and liberation).

One lineage of Shaivism that has a particularly heavy focus on Hatha Yoga are the Nath Shaivites. They trace their lineage back through the ages to who they call Adi-Nath or the Adi-Yogi, who they believe is none other than Lord Shiva himself. Thus, Shiva is the original Yogi and the founder of Yoga. Shiva is also the focus of  numerous other Hindu and Yoga texts. 

You may have noticed that most Yoga classes end with a pose where you are lying down on your back and settle into deep relaxation. Some call this corpse pose, but it was originally called Shavasana or Shiva pose (Shiva-Asana). The point of an Asana practice is to achieve union between your mind, body and spirit (to yoke), as well as between the individual self (Atman) and the universal consciousness (Paramatman). To many yogis, this pose is considered the most important part of their Asana practice and is where we are honoring and recognizing our own Shivahood or divine nature.

So, who is Shiva and what does he have to do with Yoga?

Shiva is considered to be the very first Yogi (Adiyogi), who developed the art and science of Yoga. This practice has been honored, respected, celebrated and embodied by spiritual seekers for millennium. It has been passed down through the ages by Yogis, sages, gurus and Pujaris (Hindu Priests).

Shiva is often misinterpreted in the West because he is associated with things we would find to be negative or gross, things like destruction and death. In reality, his intent is focused on the obliteration of the ego and overcoming your shadow self. Shiva is all about recognizing your own negative qualities and destroying them, so that you can emerge into a better version of yourself. Death of your old ways and rebirth into a liberated state. This is probably why his hands are often in the Abhayamudrā mudra or mudra of fearlessness. According to yogic principles, enlightenment is the goal of all meditation and yogic practices- physical, mental or spiritual. Shiva is the very spirit of Yoga and we at Lotus Tribe hope that you find a bit of Shiva within yourself.