By Hannah Faulkner Roman
Let me start off by announcing that I am not Irish, nor have I been to Ireland. But, since childhood I’ve somehow worn green every year on Saint Patrick’s Day and as an adult found this day as an excuse to have a beer. Americans have celebrated the Irish saint on this day since at least the early 18th century.
St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain in the late 4th century. As a teenager he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave. After escaping, he later returned to convert the Irish to Christianity through establishing monasteries, churches, and schools. Many legends developed over the years, including how he used the shamrock to explain the holy Trinity. Likewise, the yoga trinity involves connecting the mind, body, and spirit. Today, this holiday honors St. Patrick's efforts to unite Celtic and Catholic Ireland through wearing one of the forty shades of Ireland's green, dancing, parades, drinking beer, chasing pots of gold, and making merry.
Through the following 10 Yoga Poses, I explore the meaning behind some common Irish symbols.
1. Four-Leaf Clover
The Shamrock is the national flower of Ireland. This three-leaved plant was used by Saint Patrick to illustrate the presence of God in the natural world as the trinity (God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), but in ancient times it was used in fertility rituals, to scare away snakes, to heal diseases, and to ward off evil spirits.
However, a four-leaved clover is not technically a shamrock, it is much luckier as they appear only once out of 10,000 clovers. The petals represent faith, hope, love, and luck.
This posture is also known as Star Pose, or Utthita Tadasana. It’s a variation of Mountain Pose. To get into the posture, stand with your feet much wider than your hips. Exhale to root into the ground and tone the muscles throughout. Inhale to lift the crown of the head, allowing the spine to elongate. Extend your arms out wide to gently open the chest. Relax the shoulders down and back while lengthening through the fingertips. Continue to breath calming in and out through the nose for several breaths, connecting with your good luck.
The rain that creates the gorgeous green of Ireland also leaves a plethora of beautiful rainbows. Where does the rainbow end and what lies at its edge? As a child I thought that maybe someday I will find this edge and along with it my pot of gold! This myth evolved from the leprechauns who buried their dead with valuables. The native people of Ireland were called “little people” by the Gaelic invaders of the fifth century BC and legends morphed them into some type of drunken fairy.
This Rainbow Pose is usually known as Wild Thing or Camatkarasana (miracle pose) in Sanskrit. From Downward Facing Dog Pose, simply flip your dog. In other words, reach your right leg straight up behind you, and turn it to stack the hips. Bend at the knee and step the right ball mound of the foot to the left side of the left leg. Keep the right leg bent as the left leg pivots and straightens. Press down to lift the hips and chest. Reach the right arm forward and over the right ear. Breathe three to seven breaths to stimulate positive emotion. Gently flip your dog back and try the other side.
3. Pot of Gold
Leprechauns were often depicted as shoemakers and had a reputation for living alone, being crafty, and stashing their money. According to legend, if you catch a leprechaun, as for a ransom he will reveal the location of his valuables, pot of gold.
This posture resembles the commonly known Bow Pose or Dhanurasana. To get into the position, I recommend starting with Cobra Pose. Lie down with your belly on the floor or mat. Slide your hands to frame your ribs and shine your heart forward. Pull your belly in and up as you lift your ears away from the tops of your shoulders. Press into your hands as you begin to lift the torso. Rotate your inner thighs up to the sky and press down and out through the tops of your feet.
Now, transition to Pot of Gold by lowering halfway and reaching the arms back. Bend the knees and grasp the ankles or tops of feet. Parallel the knees at hips width distance. Kick back into your hands as you lift the thighs and ribs off the floor. Squeeze the shoulder blades together. Direct the tailbone down to keep the back muscles soft (if you feel pinching or compression in the low back, release the pose). Always start slowly and only progress when your body is ready. Rock up and down with your inhale and exhale for 3-7 breaths.
4. Irish Flag
The Irish flag is made up of three carefully chosen colors. The green represents the Gaelics or Celts, while the orange signifies the Catholics. The white stripe in the middle embodies peace between the two groups of people.
This Flag Pose corresponds with Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose, Utthita Hasta Padangustasana. Begin in Mountain Pose; lengthen the spine and balance on the four corners of each foot. Rest hands on the hips. Transfer the weight of your body onto the left foot and direct your gaze to one unwavering point (drishti). Slowly bring the right knee up and out to the height of your hips. With the index and middle finger, reach to the inside of the thigh to grasp the Big Toe and kick out wide to straighten the leg as much as possible. Stay tall through the spine and extend the left hand to aid in balancing. Breathe deeply and hold for several breaths. Reverse the process to release and repeat on the other side.
5. Irish Dance
Irish dancing evolved from the Celts and druids’ religious rituals of sun worship. These dances often involved moving in a circular fashion around sacred trees, clockwise for happy occasions, and counterclockwise for mourning. These dances included repeated tapping of the feet on one spot. Remnants of the formations and patterns can be seen in traditional Irish dancing today which has gained international acclaim.
This balancing dancing posture is similar to Figure Four Pose, Eka Pada Utkatasana. Begin by sitting into Chair Pose with your weight leaning back into your heals, and your hips level. Transfer your weight onto the left leg. Cross your right ankle over to rest on your left thigh, just above your knee, and flex your foot. Sink you weight back down and let the right knee descend. Draw the navel inward to keep the spine straight. This posture improves balance while opening the hips. The arms are traditionally together at heart’s center, but for dancing purposes, they can open wide or reach straight down like the Irish dancers. After a minute of careful breathing, gently release the top leg, stand tall and repeat the stretch on the other side.
Saint Patrick’s Day falls on the anniversary of his death. Customarily, Christians hold a great feast and Lenten food and alcohol restrictions are temporarily removed, hence the drinking.
This position resembles Double Leg Raise Pose, Uttanpadasana. Lay flat on your back with your legs and knees together and straight. Inhale to stretch arms and legs in opposite directions. Exhale to float them both up to the sky (along with the shoulder, neck and head). Repeat this breath and movement synchronicity for 3 to 10 repetitions. Feel the heat energy bubbling up from your core.
7. Lucky Horseshoe
Horseshoes were a product of the lucky blacksmiths in ancient Ireland. The blacksmiths (many of which were called Leprechauns) worked with elemental fire and were thought to have special powers to heal the sick, bless a married couple, or ward off evil spirits from homes. The iron, from which original horseshoes were made of, was also considered magical because it was stronger than other metals and able to tolerate fire. While some people argue that a horseshoe is best hung above a doorway to spread good luck, there is no consensus on whether to hang it pointing up or down. Pointing down suggests that luck will be spread to all who pass under the shoe.
This posture resembles Standing Forward Bend, Uttanasana. From standing tall in Mountain Pose, inhale to reach the arms up to the sky and exhale to engage the core, hinge from the hips, and lean forward with your heart. Release the arms, head, and neck down towards the earth. Keep the weight of the hips balanced over the balls of your feet and roll the tops of the inner thighs slightly in. Knees can be slightly bent to release any tension in the lower back. Slightly lift and lengthen your torso with each inhalation. Release deeper into the pose with each exhalation.
8. Celtic Tree of Life
The Celts believe that they came from trees which are magical, living beings. The Tree of Life represents strength, long life, and wisdom. The Celtic people honored the Tree of Life by leaving a large tree in the middle of their fields when they cleared their land. The tree provided food, shelter, and medicine. In a way, it cared for all of life and acted as a guard to the land and doorway into the lower and upper spirit worlds.
In the same way, through Tree Pose (Vrksasana), we root through our solid feet and legs to rise up through the crowns of our heads. From standing tall in Mountain Pose, bring your hands to your hips. Ground your weight down into your right leg. Gently bend your left leg, open your hip, and rest your left heal just above your right ankle. If you feel balanced here, try lifting your left leg to rest on your right calf or all the way up to your inner upper thigh. Press through your right leg just as much as the left foot is pressing back. Keep your gaze on the floor while you are setting up and challenge yourself to bring them to the horizon line or up to the sky when ready. Hands can stay on the hips or open wide like tree branches. Lengthen your spine and soften the shoulders. Breathe slowly and deeply in through the nose and out through the nose for 4-8 breaths. Slowly exhale the arms down and release the legs back to mountain. Repeat on the other side.
The harp is one of the most recognized symbols of Ireland, second to the shamrock. It’s even the symbol of the world-famous Guinness beer. It’s often referred to as the Celtic harp and can be found on flags, coats of arms, and currency. Up until the early seventeenth century, harpists relished in a high status in Ireland, regarded for their technique and skill. Ancient settlers in Ireland reference harp music in stories of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The legend tells of an Irish deity, Boand, that was giving birth. A harpist played to help ease her labor and when her first son was born, the harp moaned with crying music. For the second son, it reverberated with laughing music and for the third, it was soft and sweet with the tones of healing music. The three strains of music formed the core and heart of Irish music and can still be heard today.
The curved shape of the harp resembles the arc in Gate Pose, Parighasana, a delightful side and inner thigh stretch. From hands and knees positions, sweep the left foot out to a 45-degree angle. Reach the right leg straight back, bringing the inner arch to the earth and grounding back through the outer arch, parallel to the mat. Inhale to circle the right arm forward, then back, and lift up off the left hand, reaching in line with the left ear, so that your weight distributes through the legs and feet. Exhale to lean your torso to the right. The right arm can lightly rest on the right leg or stay active and extent out to the right. Stay for several breaths, then slowly unwind back to Tabletop and repeat on the other side.
10. Claddagh RIng
The Claddagh's characteristic design contains two hands clasping a heart, and topped by a crown. The elements of this symbol correspond to the qualities of love (the heart), friendship (the hands), and loyalty (the crown). There are a few charming tales of love related to the origin of the ring. The finger on which the ring is worn and the direction that the heart points reveals the wearer’s romantic availability as single, in a relationship, engaged, or married.
In a comfortable seated meditation position like Sukhasana, bring your hands together in front of the heart. Create a heart mudra with the hands by pressing the descending thumbs together and joining the fingernails of opposite hands. This action can help to tap into loving green energy of the heart chakra. As the fourth and center of seven chakras, our Anahata unites and integrates the upper and lower chakras and is considered to be our center of equilibrium. It is associated with compassion and deep caring for ourselves, other humans, beings, and the earth.
With a tall spine, close your eyes and meditate on the love inside of you. Inhale to let this green energy of life expand throughout your lungs, ribs, and entire circulatory system. Exhale to bring your awareness back to the warmth tingling from the contact of your hands resting on the torso. Inhale again and let loving forgiveness melt all over you whole body from the top of your head to the edge or your toenails. Exhale to feel grounded through gratitude in this body. Inhale to cleanse your mind of past hurts or future worries, exhale to forgive others. Inhale to accept the whole of humanity, exhale to honor the earth. Release the mudra and let your hands rest on your thighs, feeling relaxed and peaceful.
Happy Saint Patrick's Day!
I hope you enjoy these fun postures!
Join us on these journeys through fun poses at Sunday Sunset Yoga on the Bay (times vary due to season and actual time of Sunset).