There’s a bunch of commonly seen symbols in the world of yoga and meditation, but what do all these ancient symbols even mean?
Every yoga studio has at the very least a lotus design, the om symbol, and probably the word namaste written somewhere. There’s seemingly 100 more symbols and in this article we’ll break down the ancient origin and meaning behind all of them.
Before you can understand the symbolic meaning, it’s import to understand the ancient origin of yoga for context and deeper understanding.
Let’s dive in.
Background Origin of Yoga Symbols (Buddhist vs. Hindu)
Yoga has been traced back to at least over 4,500 years ago to ancient India by statues found in the ancient Indus Valley Civilization.
But the best evidence of ancient yoga is written in The Vedas, which are a set of four texts which outline the basis of the Hindu religion. The Vedas are written in Ancient Sanskrit and date back to 1,500 B.C (3,500 years ago).
If you’re interested in diving deeper, I wrote another article about the secret psychedelic drink called “Soma”, which was also written about in The Vedas
Buddhist Yoga vs. Hindu Yoga
When most people think of yoga they think it’s a Buddhist tradition. Why ?
Buddha was born as a Prince in India in 563 B.C. But Buddha rejected the royal life and set off East towards China on a journey to find happiness.
Buddha created a new way of life that is followed by millions of people around the world today. Many of the traditions that are commonly associated with Buddhism, were originally borrowed from the Original Vedas Texts that spawned Hinduism, including yoga.
What’s The Overall Point (goal) of Doing Yoga
In order to understand the symbols of yoga we need to start by understanding the “big picture” point of yoga. Yoga’s not just about sitting on a rock cross legged chanting or for middle aged women looking to find themselves.
1. Align Mind, Body, Spirit
Have you ever heard someone say “get out of your head” and take action. Or maybe you’ve heard someone say the opposite “slow down and think”. Or maybe you’ve heard someone say the phrase “follow your heart”.
The goal of yoga is to find balance in all 3 areas of your life. A perfect harmony between your mind, your body, and your spirit (or passion).
2. Connecting To The Universe
The other part of yoga deals with your external environment. By understanding yourself and your connection to your environment and to nature, yoga helps you understand your place with-in the fractal universe.
Traditional Yoga Symbols, Origins, & Meanings
1. The “Om” (or Aum) Symbol
Most people wonder, “what does the 30 symbol mean” ?
Om is known today as a universal symbol for yoga and meditation, but the deeper meaning is a bit more complex.
The exact meaning of Om does not translate into the English language with a single word. It’s more of a conceptual meaning.
Om is said to represent “cosmic sound” and “the universe beyond the sun”. Om is the essence of life and everything that exists. Om is the ultimate reality of consciousness.
Om Represents 5 States of Consciousness
1. Wakefulness State (consciousness turned outward)
During wakefulness our conscious mind is turned outward towards the external world. We are fully aware of both time and space. Often this state is referred to as the “mundane” or “bodily” level.
2. Dream State Including Day-Dreaming (consciousness turned inward)
When we dream, time and space start to become warped. A dream might feel like 1,000 years or 10 minutes. This is an inwardly directed state based on impressions from the external world that you have experienced during the wakeful state.
3. Unconscious Deep Sleep (unconsciousness)
In deep sleep there is no perception of time or space. We are completely unconscious, and can only be aware of having been in this state by realizing so afterwards.
Accessing unconscious deep sleep is essential for physical, mental and spiritual health.
4. Maya – The Illusion of Reality (ego)
Ego distorts our understanding of reality. Someone with a large ego might run away from a fight, only to make an excuse that they thought they heard someone call their name. This is the false version of reality that they tell themselves to avoid the pain of accepting reality and damaging their fragile ego in the process.
Your ego can distort your version of reality. But no matter how much your ego distorts your personal view on reality, the real version of reality never goes away.
Maya is seen as a lesser-reality-lens superimposed on the real version of reality.
In order to reach pure consciousness one must let go of their ego.
5. Pure Consciousness (commonly known as Turiya)
Turiya is the superconscious state. There is no time and no space. This state lacks wakefulness, sleeping, conscious or unconscious, inward or outward, aware or unaware, and is all of it and none of it at the same time.
Just oneness of being.
Thinking of it another way, pure consciousness is all of the previous 3 states combined. Without this combination of awareness and unconsciousness, Turiya is not possible.
2. The Chakra Symbols
The Chakra’s go hand-in-hand with the AUM symbol, and Just like Aum, the chakras were also described in the ancient Vedas text. Although it is debated among scholars and interpreters to what degree the chakras are mentioned.
According to Dr. Georg Feuerstein the chakras are described in ancient texts as Nadis, which translates to “Energy carrying Arteries”
Chakra’s are an ancient representation for our internal glands.
Each of the seven main Chakras are directly associated with the seven endocrine glands as well as corresponding nerve clusters.
Each gland and nerve cluster has a specific effect on certain emotions and organs. This is why there is a direct link from each “chakra location” to a specific emotional or health issue.
If someone says your chakras are “out of balance” what they really mean is that your emotional state is causing a chemical imbalance in your endocrine system.
3. The Number 108
The number 108 is one of those numbers that is important on multiple levels. 108 is a sacred and spiritual number, and also an important number mathematically, but why ?
The truthful answer that no one talks about is that nobody knows for sure what the number 108 really represents.
108 is one of those numbers that shows up in different ways in different mathematical formulas when calculating the origins of the universe.
Much like yoga, and the chakras, the number 108 also appears in The Vedas ancient scriptures. The Vedas describe the number 108 as a representation of the whole universe and all existence.
Here’s some examples of the number 108 showing up in nature and the universe.
- 108 From a Cosmic Perspective
From a cosmic perspective, there are 27 constellations in our galaxy and each constellation has 4 directions. 27 x 4 = 108. From this perspective, the number 108 encompasses the whole galaxy.
- 108 From The Earth’s Perspective
The distance between the Earth and the Sun is 108 times the diameter of the Earth.
The distance between the Earth and Moon is 108 times the diameter of the Moon.
The diameter of the Sun is 108 times the diameter of the Earth.
- 108 & Ancient Monuments
Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument in England is 108 feet in diameter.
In Baliz, the ancient Mayan temple of Lamanai was erected at 108 feet tall. Also, the ancient Mayan funerary Tikal temple in Guatemala is also 108 feet tall.
In India, and according to yogic tradition, there are a total of 108 sacred sites erected which are known as Pithas.
- 108 From A Human Perspective
The 108 Marma Points – The ancient technique of marma point therapy uses massaging techniques on 108 energy points located on the human body.
This massaging technique is described as a way for improving your biochemistry. It’s believed to release stagnant energy and stimulate your internal organs, hormones, and other chemicals to help meet the needs of your body.
108 feelings – Buddhist believe that humans have 108 feelings calculated as follows:
6 Senses (Smell, Touch, Taste, Sight, Hearing and Consciousness)
x 3 Pleasant, Painful or Neutral feelings
x 2 Internally or externally generated feelings
x 3 Past, Present or Future feelings
Therefore, 36 past, 36 present and 36 future feelings = 108 total human feelings.
108 Beads on a Mala – A mala is a beaded meditation necklace originally thought to be from India and consisting of 108 prayer beads. The mala is similar to the rosary in the Christian religion.
108 Yoga poses – Sun salutations are an ancient yoga routine often performed in nine rounds of the 12 postures which totals 108 poses. 12 poses for each planet and one for the sun.
In 2015 a study found that practicing this routine in college students lead to a greater ability to physically relax and have greater mental clarity.
- 108 From A Mathematical Perspective
I’m certainly not a math major or mathematician but the number 108 is clearly deeply imbedded in the building blocks and fundamental code that makes up our natural universe.
Why exactly does this number show up and what does it mean may very well be unclear to even the most seasoned scholars.
Here’s what we know for sure.
There are certain patterns (called fractals) that show up in mathematical codes all over the universe. For example, the swirl of a galaxy, the swirl of a hurricane, and the swirl of a snail shell.
These are all vastly different in scale / size, but the ratio of the swirl pattern is the exact same for all 3. This ratio is known as the golden ratio, also known as the Fibonacci sequence.
In yoga we are often reminded that “as above, so below,” and when we start to drill down into our human form we continue to find the number 108 over and over again.
Nautilus shells (pre-historic snails) are fascinating to look at and the spiral of the shell is a perfect match to the Fibonacci sequence.
Much like galaxies and hurricanes, the Nautilus shell follows the progression of a 1.08 growth rate. This means that as the sea creature grows, each chamber of its shell’s growth is 1.08 times larger than the last chamber.
This next part is very interesting but quite difficult to understand as it relates to the “BIGGER PICTURE”. This was copied directly from the Fibonacci website.
To fully understand the significance of the number 108, it is necessary to understand the numerical science of decimal parity.
Decimal parity is a method for breaking numbers down into single digits. For example, the decimal parity equivalent of the number 361 is 3 + 6 + 1 = 10 and 1 + 0 = 1. So the decimal parity equivalent of 361 is 1.
The first 24 numbers of the Fibonacci Sequence are: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, 1597, 2584, 4181, 6765, 10946, 17711, 28657.
When decimal parity is applied to the Fibonacci sequence it is found there is a repeating series of 24 digits being the following: (0), 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 4, 3, 7, 1, 8, 9, 8, 8, 7, 6, 4, 1, 5, 6, 2, 8, 1.
If we add these 24 digits up, we find the number 108.
0 + 1 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 5 + 8 + 4 + 3 + 7 + 1 + 8 + 9 + 8 + 8 + 7 + 6 + 4 + 1 + 5 + 6 + 2 + 8 + 1 = 108
Amazingly, the 1.08 constant growth rate the nautilus uses to build its spiral shell is the same pattern that repeats every 24 numbers in the Fibonacci sequence.
4. The Lotus Flower Symbol
The lotus flower is one of the most popular yoga symbols. Pretty much every single yoga studio or symbol has some variation of the lotus flower design…. But why ?
Just like most ancient symbols, the lotus flower has a few meanings.
The journey of the blossoming of the lotus flower is seen as a metaphor for life. The lotus flower starts with its roots imbedded into the murky bottoms of muddy waters. From there it grows upwards through the water and eventually blossoming into a pure and beautiful flower as it raises above the water into the sunlight.
The lotus flower is the perfect metaphor for personal growth and evolution through life.
5. The Symbolism of Buddha
The buddha symbol represents the story of Buddha, a prince who gave up his royal luxuries to pursue a life of happiness.
The original Sanskrit interpretation of Buddha is translated to “the enlightened one”. The buddha symbol reminds all of us of someone who was wise, compassionate, loving, and of someone with a high set of morals.
These are the 3 Pillars of the Buddha Symbol.
- Virtue, good conduct, morality. The principle of equality: that all living entities are equal. Do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you.
- Concentration, meditation, mental development. Developing one’s mind is the path to wisdom which, in turn, leads to personal freedom. Mental development also strengthens and controls our mind; this helps us maintain good conduct.
- Discernment, insight, wisdom, enlightenment. This is the real heart of Buddhism. Wisdom will emerge if your mind is pure and calm.
If you’ve ever been to a yoga class or if you’ve tried an at-home yoga class, then you’ve heard the phrase namaste. Usually at the end of the practice. So what does namaste mean ?
Namaste comes from Hindu origin and quite literally means “I bow to you”.
But namaste is not a concession of power or cowering, namaste is a sign of respect. It’s an acknowledgement that your ‘higher self’ or soul is recognizing and respecting someone else’s ‘higher self’.
The namaste pose has been found in ancient figures dating back 4,000-5,000 years ago.
7. Eyes of Buddha
The eyes of Buddha AKA “Wisdom Eyes” are primarily a symbol from Nepal, and the “Tibetan Buddhists”, but much like Buddhism and yoga, the symbol has spread worldwide.
Buddha’s eyes look out into all corners of the universe representing the omnipresence of the all seeing buddha.
There are actually 2 set of eyes in the symbol. The middle eye or “third eye” represents the lens through which you look internally at yourself and the deep seeded wisdom of buddha.
The larger outer 2 eyes represent the way in which you see the material world.
Between the Buddha’s eyes where the nose would be is a curly symbol that looks like question mark. This is the Nepali character for the number 1, which symbolizes unity of all the things as well as the one way to reach enlightenment—through the Buddha’s teachings.
8. The Hamsa Hand
The origins of the Hamsa hand are difficult to pin down, but evidence has been uncovered that dates all the way back to Ancient Mesopotamia in modern day Iraq.
Since then the Hamsa hand has been adopted by Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, as well as Christianity.
Today the Hamsa hand is know as the “right hand of god” and the hand of Fatima (the daughter of Muhammad)
Despite, being adopted by multiple religions, the overall symbolism and meaning of the hand of Hamsa remains the same. The Hamsa hand Is a symbol used to ward off “the evil eye”.
As it relates to yoga and Buddhism, the Hamsa is often taken to represent the chakras.
Each of the five fingers has an energy that it represents.
Thumb: The solar plexus chakra and fire element
Forefinger: The heart chakra and air
Middle finger: The throat chakra and ethereal elements
Ring finger: The root chakra and earth element
Pinkie finger: The sacral chakra and water.
9. The Mandala
The mandala is a traditional Hindu symbol (later adopted by Buddha) with its first known appearance being found in the Ancient Vedas texts.
So what does the mandala represent?
The mandala is a symbol sign of the cosmos and universe. Most mandalas have colorful, detailed geometric patterns.
A traditional mandala is a square containing a circle, although many versions have a multitude of patterns, all mandalas maintain symmetry and stay balanced.
Some traditions use mandalas for meditation and accessing higher levels of consciousness.
A mandala is seen as an artistic representation of higher consciousness and used to focus one’s attention.
Ganesh is the Hindu god of wisdom and the lord of good fortune.
Worship of Ganesh is thought to bring prosperity, success and protection. From the yogic perspective, Ganesh is the supreme administrator of the senses. Ganesh is a symbol for pure universal intelligence.
The intention of admiring Ganesh is to break through our limitations and create personal transformation resulting in a higher consciousness. In yoga, Ganesh is said to be connected to the root chakra, which represents survival and material well-being.
Ganesh’s elephant head symbolizes his wisdom and the knowledge that can be gained through listening and reflection.
Lord Shiva is considered the “great god” and is the father and founder of Yoga. He is widely celebrated as the very first teacher Yoga.
Lord Shiva is often seen meditating in the silence of the mountains sitting in a lotus yoga pose. His conscious energy is said to be so high that he controls the entire functioning of the universe in his subconscious mind.
Shiva is also the father of Ganesh.
12. Yin & Yang
The origins of the ying-yang goes back to 600 B.C. in Ancient China. The ying-yang was first used as a time keeping device which tracked shadow lengths over the course of the year.
Yang represents the winter solstice and indicates the beginning of the period when daylight dominates over darkness. This is why Yang is associated with the sun.
Yin represents the summer solstice and represents the dominance of darkness over daylight. Thus Yin represents the dominance of darkness over daylight and is associated with the moon.
It is this fundamental basis that leads the ying-yang to symbolize light vs. darkness and good vs. evil.
13. The Wheel of Dharma
The wheel of dharma is used heavily in both Hindu and Buddhist belief systems. And with-in both Hinduism and Buddhism there’s multiple interpretations, symbolic representations depending on the context.
The wheel of dharma has 3 basic components that make up the chariot wheel. The center hub, the outside wheel, and the spokes.
Author and Zen Buddhism expert Barbara O’Brien has spent years researching the symbolic meanings of the dharma wheel. And Mrs. O’Brian has found that, over the centuries, the core components of the dharma wheel have taken on their own meanings and symbolism.
The Hub –
The hub of the dharma wheel is often depicted differently over time and in different cultures, sects, religions. Generally, the hub of the dharma wheel is believed to represent moral discipline.
Sometimes the hub is represented by the yin-yang symbol. And sometimes the hub is composed of 3 swirls. The three swirls are said to represent the Three Treasures or Three Jewels of Buddhism
The Rim –
The main circle which gives the ancient symbol its round wheel shape, represents the perfection of the dharma (which is interpreted as the natural laws of nature and the universe). Circular and never ending.
Many historians also believe that the rim of the wheel represents meditation, concentration, and mindfulness, which are key pillars of both Buddhist and Hindu disciplines.
The Spokes –
The number of spokes on the dharma wheel varies over time as the wheel has taken on different meanings in different cultures. Sometimes the wheel’s spokes are contained with-in the circle, and sometimes the spokes protrude beyond the wheel.
It is said that the spokes protruding outside the circle represent penetrating insights which have edges sharp enough to cut through ignorance.
Ancient symbols are mysterious, fascinating, and captivating. In today’s culture, millions of people wear ancient symbols on their clothes and get symbolic tattoos, but not many people truly understand the deep-rooted origins and meanings of these symbols.
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