Astavakra was in his mother’s womb when he heard his father reciting the mantras of the Vedas. Sometimes his father mispronounced words and Astavakra would wince as if in pain. When he could no longer take it, Astavakra corrected his father by speaking through the belly of his mother. This infuriated his father, who cursed him with a body that was bent in eight places. So Astavakra was born crippled.
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 he invited many learned scholars to his court for this discussion. Astavakra journeyed for many days to get there. When he finally arrived, though, the whole assembly started to laugh at the sight of his crooked body.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 shows 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.
Astavakrasana, or eight angle pose, is one of my favorite yoga poses. To get into it I typically start in Compass pose shown here:
Remove the hand from the foot and place it on the floor next to your hip. Allow the leg to bend over the shoulder. Facing front, with hands about shoulder width apart squeeze your core and lift your body from the floor. Swing the legs to the side crossing the lower ankle over the top ankle. Arms are bent so that the upper arms are parallel to the floor. Continue to use your core in this and every arm balancing pose.
Story as told in Myths of the Asanas by Alanna Kaivalya & Arjuna van der Kooij