Practicing Integrity

The last yama from the Śāṇḍilya Upaniṣad that I want to tell you about is árjava.


This means integrity or straightforwardness. Sometimes translated as non-hypocrisy, the ethical principle of árjava seems like a fitting way to round out consideration of the so-called do-nots of yoga’s ethical rules.


Árjava essentially means do what you say you are going to do. Show up in the world how you want everyone to show up in the world.


There’s one particular character in the yoga pantheon who exemplifies integrity and non-hypocrisy better than any other:


Garuḍa


Often described as an eagle, Garuḍa is sometimes depicted as a giant eagle-like bird with open wings or as a man with wings and other bird features.


He shows up in many of the ancient texts in lots of different (sometimes conflicting) accounts but what remains consistent through every story is his loyalty and integrity.


In one of my favorite tales from the Viṣṇu-purāṇa, Garuḍa is on a quest to save his mother who has been imprisoned by some demons. As payment for her release, the demons tell Garuḍa that he must bring them back a jar of the nectar of immortality. I imagine they didn’t think it could be done. But true to his word, Garuḍa gets the jar and carries it all the way back to the demons without even a moment’s temptation to drink the nectar to guarantee his own immortality. Vishnu is so impressed with Garuḍa's trustworthiness that he implores Garuḍa to become his celestial transport.


Practicing Garuḍāsana

For many years I could not understand why Garuḍasana was called eagle pose. I just could not see the eagle part of the pose. The nagging need to understand the name of this post led me to a story from the Rāmāyaṇam.


As you may know, the Rāmāyaṇam is the most epic story in all of world literature. In 24,000 verses, it chronicles the life of the hero Prince Rāma from his childhood through a 14-year exile to his eventual crowning as King and finally to his death.


There are several great battles throughout the text but in this particular battle, Rāma has been bound by snakes, who wrap around his body. Garuḍa, namesake of the eagle pose garuḍāsana, swoops in and eats up the snakes. This frees Rāma who goes on to win the battle.


While Rāma is bound against his will in this battle, when we practice eagle pose we choose to pull in and bind ourselves to ourselves.


Binding on Purpose


This drawing in and binding up, arms and legs wrapped around one another, is at the heart of our cultivation of integrity.


The fact that our external vision is obstructed by the arm position of this pose reinforces this idea. Drawing in from the information we receive from our external environment is a practice in yoga known as pratyāhāra. We typically experience pratyāhāra as a stage in our meditative journey but we can get a sense of this practice in garuḍasana too.


Ultimately, in garuḍasana we can ask the questions at the heart of our bid for integrity:


How do we show up authentically and truthfully in the world without being hypocritical?


The answer is being truthful and consistent and committed in the outer world, which is more doable when we choose to draw inward first.


Why does all of this matter?


Learning about yoga beyond the poses - whether that is through exploration of the philosophy and ideology of the broader yoga system or with stories like these - is an important way for us to honor the tradition and culture of yoga.


We are really laying the groundwork how the postures we practice on our yoga mats shape the way we move through the world.


For more great stories featuring the characters and fables from Hinduism and Buddhism that inspire yoga posture names, check out this set of blog posts.


And join me for live-streaming yoga classes! Every class will teach you about more than just the poses. Sometimes we explore principles of movement that are relevant in the poses, sometimes I'll offer you some philosophy and some mythology, and most of the time you get a little bit of everything.


When you sign up for a monthly membership plan, you will also get access to recorded classes on-demand. Learn more about memberships.


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