Lord Shiva, among the great deities of Hinduism, most personifies the practice of yoga. As Yogeshvara, the great lord of yoga, Adi Yogi and Mahayogi, he rules over all aspects of yoga relative to body, mind and consciousness. For those looking to understand the origins of Yoga and the role of all yoga practices within it, they must first look to Lord Shiva, not only relative to historical teachings, but as the eternal presence of Yoga as the Supreme Consciousness behind the universe.
Shiva is the lord of asana practice with 84 lakhs of asanas said to have derived from his movements. This shows Shiva’s connections with the numerous Yoga asanas known and unknown. As Nataraj, the lord of the dance, his dance and gestures also reflect yoga postures, starting with the 108 main traditional poses of Indian dance.
Shiva symbolises the immortal Prana, the undying force of eternal existence. He is honoured as Mrityunjaya, the one who conquers death. Tantric yoga teachings about Prana relate to Shiva, who holds the inner power of pranayama. Pranic mantras like Hamsa and So’ham relate to Shiva.
Shiva is the source of all mantras. He is Omkara, the primordial cosmic sound, and from his drum all the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet reverberate. Specifically Shiva is said to be all the vowels but he encompasses every aspect of primal sound, nada and music.
Shiva is the lord of meditation, depicted seated in deep meditation, dissolving the entire universe into himself. In his Dakshinamurti or youthful form, he is the teacher of Jnana Yoga, the yoga of knowledge, through the power of the silent mind, enlightening all the great Rishis.
Adi Shankara, who taught in detail and depth, the great system of Advaita or non-dualist Vedanta is regarded as a manifestation of Shiva.
Shiva is most famous as having three eyes or Tryambakam. The third eye of Shiva is the inner eye of unitary awareness and higher perception beyond all duality. Shiva as the lord of the mountain, the Himalayas in general and Mount Kailas in particular, represents the mountain of meditation which also the mountain of the spine and the subtle body, the great cosmic mountain.
The river Ganga that flows down from Shiva’s head represents the immortal stream of higher yogic awareness from planes and lokas beyond this material world. The Shiva Linga, his upward focused energy, represents the ascending power of yoga, the silent mind of Samadhi and the yogic state of transcendence, the pillar that supports the entire universe.
Shiva’s consort as Devi or Shakti, the Divine Mother, is the Yoga Shakti, the power of yoga always honoured along with him, seen as the left half of his own body. From the Kundalini Shakti in the human being to the power of consciousness (Chit-shakti) at a cosmic level, she mirrors his magnificence and allows us to experience it.
Shaivite yoga traditions
Many great yoga traditions arise from Shiva and honour him as their original guru. Most Himalayan sadhus are Shaivites. Shaivite Yoga includes the venerable Nath traditions that formed the main teachings of Hatha Yoga and Siddha Yoga. In Vedic times, Shiva was lauded as Rudra along with the Maruts, his wandering sages who had the power of mantra and prana, and with great Rishis like Vasishta as his devotees. Shiva Yogis maintain a special sacred fire in honour of this Vedic heritage.
Shaivite yoga in the Mahabharata is called Pashupata Yoga. The image of Shiva as Pashupati or the lord of the animals, with a three-headed form, is the most enduring image in Indian art, found as early as the Harappan era. Yet the animal pashu alsor refers to the seen world, with Shiva as the seer. In addition the animals represent the Nakshatras or constellations with Shiva as the Sun. Shiva represents the eternal presence of yoga behind the dharmic culture of India.
Shiva’s numerous shrines throughout India hold many yogic powers, from Mount Kailas and Lak Manasarovar in Tibet in the north to Rameshwaram in the south, including the famous 12 Jyotir Lingas from Somnath to Kashi Vishwanath. A steady stream of pilgrims attends these Shiva sanctuaries regularly today as they have for thousands of years. The Kumbha Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering, provides a centre stage to his worship extending to tens of millions of devotees led by Shaivite Naga Sadhus.
Those who practice yoga should always remember Shiva, the great lord of yoga. If one can surrender to Lord Shiva inwardly, all the powers and insights of yoga will naturally be revealed at the appropriate time and manner. Shiva is the inner guru of yoga and all true gurus function with his grace and insight.
Shivaratri, the night of Shiva, is the most important day of the year to worship Lord Shiva. It occurs at the dark of the moon, specifically the 13/14 tithis just before the New Moon, showing Shiva’s mastery over all the mysteries of the mind (the Moon). One stays up all night performing special rituals and mantras to Shiva as the supreme reality to awaken his power within us. Yet monthly Shivaratris occur every month and can be used to worship him in the same manner.
Shiva dwells in the ever wakeful pure awareness that is our true Self beyond waking, dream and deep sleep, such as the Upanishads proclaim. Where that Shiva state of peace and detachment prevails, the universe returns to its original state of overflowing bliss.
Moving into our own deeper Shiva nature we go beyond body and mind, time and space, into the immortal pure light of boundless awareness. In your inner being you are Shiva. The body, mind and universe as a whole are merely your play of manifestation that you inherently transcend.
Om Namah Shivaya!
This article is an expansion of an article first published by Daily O.