From Paradise Lost by John Milton
Devaduuta Pannasana or Fallen Angel Pose
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
Although uttered in a fit of bravado at his banishment from Heaven, Lucifer’s statement taken on its own is pretty yogic. So often we see the world around us as the cause of our unhappiness, or stress, or anxiety, but yoga teaches us that frequently it is how we are choosing to respond that causes the emotions we think are inevitable. On the mat, any pain or anxiety is only caused by ourselves – we can stop, then it won’t hurt – or we can stay and deal with it, it’s really only up to us. Stress or frustration at not being able to ‘achieve’ a particular asana? Only yourself to blame, no-one else says you need to. Fear of not being good enough; against whose standard? Only your own.
Milton’s Lucifer comes out with a lot of wisdom. He has a way with words and he’s entertaining. He’d be a good panel show contestant, or in the House of Commons. Milton’s God, on the other hand, can drone on like the most boring of sermons, with barely a fun rhetorical device to be seen. There is an age old literary debate about whether Milton unwittingly made Lucifer the sympathetic protagonist of his Christian epic; the Romantic poets saw Lucifer as a romantic hero struggling through a cruel world, banished simply for wanting a promotion. Is ambition so wrong?
I tend to think Milton was quite clever, and genuinely did want to ‘justify the ways of God to man’, and it is no accident that his Satan is so seductive. We are drawn to clever tricks, we want to emulate those who seem cool, and cynical and like they know what’s going on. We’ve all wished we were like Lucifer, with a perfectly timed answer at hand for all occasions. However, the devil’s tricks are cheap, and things of true value may not appear so initially appealing – like in the valuable lesson taught us at the end of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, the Holy Grail might be a muddy old wooden thing hiding at the back.
In yoga, it can sometimes seem like asanas are either ‘cool’ or ‘dull’. The new student beats himself up because he can only do the ‘dull’ poses, not any of the ‘cool’ ones. You think people only put up their handstands and extreme backbends on Instagram because the ‘dull’ ones are just not worthy – anyone can do that. In fact, the opposite is true. We can get away with a dodgy, misaligned, non-mindful handstand picture – because we’re still upside down on our hands! It looks so cool! But a dodgy Warrior 1, or Downward Dog, or Tadasana? A lack of attention to detail is so much easier to see.
Devaduuta Pannasana, or Fallen Angel Pose, falls into the demonic end of ‘cool’ poses. If Lucifer had used asanas instead of apples to woo Adam and Eve, he might have picked this one. The first time I saw someone do it, I thought his head had spun all the way round on its axis like in The Exorcist. Of course, it’s smoke and mirrors. Once you have the confidence to trust the side of your face as a base, finding the balance is for many people easier here than in many ‘simpler’ asanas. It therefore is a pose which reminds us to look beyond our initial impressions of the world – have we been beguiled into believing we’re not good enough, that we need to be something more, have we been sucked in by the advertising? Is the truth actually simpler, and, well, easier?
I always felt there was an unfortunate ‘curiosity killed the cat’ message within the Genesis story, and I like the way that Milton slightly subverts this and I think is exhorting us not to take things at face value – look beyond Lucifer’s hype. The apple may not be all it’s cracked up to be, and the weird sideways faceplant pose may turn out to feel nothing like it looks.
There is a Paradise Lost quote that sometimes comes to mind at the end of a long savasana, the sense of mingled happiness and wonder, and seeing the world anew:
“That day I oft remember, when from sleep
I first awaked, and found myself reposed,
Under a shade, on flowers, much wondering where
And what I was, whence thither brought, and how.”