The Story of Ashtavakra

Seeing the Supreme Soul Within  – The story of Ashtavakra

In my classes this month I’ve been leading “Ashtavakra’s Pose.” There is a beautiful story, Ashtavakra’s Story, behind the pose and I’d like to share it with you:

There was once a proud man, whose wife was pregnant. The man would frequently recite the ancient scriptures of India, the Vedas, taking pride in his ability to memorize long passages. He wanted to impress others with his encyclopedic knowledge of the texts.

The baby in his wife’s womb was destined to be an enlightened being. When the boy heard his father reciting the mantras of the Vedas in such a conceited way, he was hurt by his father’s attitude. Sometimes his father mispronounced the words and the baby would wince as if in pain. When he could no longer take it, the baby corrected his father by speaking through the belly of his mother. This infuriated the father, who cursed the boy with a body that was bent in eight places. So the boy was born crippled and was named Ashtavakra – which means “eight crooks” or eight bent parts.

Once grown, Astavakra decided to go to King Janaka’s court to hear a philosophical discussion. King Janaka was famed for his knowledge of the Vedas and  invited many learned scholars to his court.  Ashtvakra had a long and arduous journey to get there – on account of his deformities it took great effort for him to walk.  When he finally arrived, though, and attempted to join the discussion the whole assembly started to laugh at the sight of his crooked body.  He looked like a haggard rube, and the assembly mocked him for thinking he could stand up to their intellectual prowess. They were very surprised when Astavakra joined in with the laughter, actually seeming to laugh more intensely than anyone else. King Janaka asked Astavakra what he was laughing about and Astavakra explained that he was not laughing, but crying. He went on to explain that he had traveled a long way to hear men of great wisdom discuss the Vedas but was so disappointed to find only shoemakers in the assembly.

The King asked why he thought that the others in the room were shoemakers and Astavakra explained that they only see skin. They do not see the atma, the soul. They didn’t have any knowledge of the Supreme Soul but instead look at the skin and judge it good or bad just as a shoemaker does.

The King and those in the assembly became quite embarrassed when they realized the truth of his statement. King Janaka bowed down to Astavakra and became his student.

The story illustrates a very common human condition in which we become overly concerned with external appearances and often become identified with it. It is important to take care of the body, considered by yogis to be the temple of the soul, but we must also develop detachment from the body.

This story also teaches us that yoga can be practiced by anyone, regardless of the state of their body. Our flexibility is not measured so much by the length of our muscles as by our willingness to step up to the challenges in our lives.

You can use Ashtavakra’s tale to transform your personal Asana/physical yoga posture practice.  Use the outer yoga, to do the “inner yoga.” For example, when you do tree pose for the 100,000 time, can you notice how your balance was different from the last time? Let this to remind you of the impermanence of your physical body.   Do your outer practice to create a more harmonious and peaceful inner environment, and ultimately come closer to the warmth and unconditional love of your own Inner Light:

  • Identify the feeling of each posture and movement, rather than how it looks on the outside.
    • is there an aching sensation?
    • is there a pleasant stretch?
    • is there discomfort? Can I be patient and breath with this discomfort?
    • is there burning or pain? (if there is, back off)
    • am I breathing?
  • Choose to accept or set-aside challenging sequences or postures based on how they will balance your ego:
    • will this physical challenge build my confidence and endurance?
    • Can I do practice this posture with patience, without gritting my teeth?
    • am I forcing myself to do this because I want to be able to do a “hard” pose?
  • Notice when judgement comes up –  either positive or negative: “I must look ridiculous right now,” or “I’m the best one in the class at this pose.” Without condemnation, can you set aside judgement and go back to focusing on the feeling of your body in the moment?
  • Soften your definition of “success” and “failure” while you practice – were you breathing and concentrating? Moving with compassion? Does it matter if you achieved the posture being taught?
  • Commit to practicing with respect, dignity, mercy and compassion for your body, exactly the way it is – challenges, limitations, muscle, fat, wrinkles, bones, scar tissue – without forcing it to be, or constantly wishing it was something it’s not.  (One of my teachers, Dianne Bondy, calls this making your mat a “cease fire zone.”)

And finally – as you begin to look within yourself, can you look within others? Are there Ashtavakras in your life – or people who you tend to see only the outer shape or skin? Remember the lesson of Ashtavakra and soften eyes and perspective – look for the Supreme Self within.


Story borrowed heavily (and somewhat adapted) from Myths of the Asanas by Alanna Kaivalya & Arjuna van der Kooij