Fathers have never much liked being outsmarted by their offspring. In most cultures, any evidence of a son’s arrogance can get the son into deep trouble with his father. Astavakra’s tale contains classic elements of the intergenerational tensions that show up even—or perhaps especially—in the realm of religion and spiritual practice.
What makes Astavakra remarkable is that he crossed the line with his father, and was punished, before he even left the womb. While still in his mother’s belly, he corrected his father’s recitation of verses from the Rig Veda, a collection of India’s oldest and most sacred hymns. Enraged, Astavakra’s father cursed him, and the boy was born deformed. Astavakra’s name refers to the eight (asta) crooked (vakra) angles of his limbs; the many angles of the pose Astavakrasana evoke the curse of crooked limbs that Astavakra triumphed over by dint of his persistence, piety, and intelligence.
Despite his father’s cruel curse, Astavakra remained a faithful son. When the boy was 12, his father lost a priestly debate and was banished to the watery realm of Varuna, lord of death. Although the journey required a monumental effort, Astavakra traveled to the king’s court to challenge the man who had bested his father. Because of Astavakra’s unsightly shape, the people at court laughed at him—but only until he opened his mouth and they discovered he was incredibly learned and deeply insightful, even though he was still just a boy. Astavakra triumphed in the debate, winning his father’s freedom, and people who once mocked him became his disciples, including the king.
Astavakra’s story illustrates the human tendency to judge things by their appearance rather than by their true substance. It is also a reminder of the power of steadfast faith to triumph over ridicule and misunderstanding. According to yoga teacher Aadil Palkhivala, “Astavakrasana appears to be very difficult, but actually, it’s one of the easiest of arm balances if you just know the technique. What the pose is trying to tell us is that even when things seem extremely convoluted, if you just know how to arrange them, your situation is not as arduous as it looks.” While some poses are designed to make us work hard, others, like Astavakrasana, are actually designed to teach us to work less. “This asana requires more knowledge than effort,” Palkhivala says. “It is not a fighting pose; the primary feeling in it is a sense of freedom.”
Excerpt from Yoga Journal Article Heroes, Saints and Sages By Colleen Morton Busch