Anatomy, Greek Mythology and Breath in 500 Words or Less


This morning, in an attempt to better understand this shoulder instability I have been dealing with for a few months, I got out my anatomy book and started reviewing.  Anatomy is so exciting.  We have this incredibly complex system of muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, bones and a lot of other stuff that work together so we can smile, come into downward facing dog or drink a glass of water.   As I learn more about how these systems work, it starts to feel like that satisfying experience of piecing a puzzle together.

I got a little distracted from my original shoulder query and ended up looking at the neck-zone.   I am really curious about this place where the skull meets the first cervical vertebrae.  This is a pretty important area, right?  All the information from our brain gets sent to the rest of our body through the spinal cord which exits the skull at the foramen magnum (Latin: ‘great hole’) and moves through the atlas, that first cervical vertebrae, into the spinal column and beyond.

That first vertebra is called the ATLAS, people.  I love this.  I love how some anatomist, way back when, referenced the Greek civilization from even further back-when giving the rest of us SO MUCH more than anatomy to think about when we study the neck-zone.  This very special bone refers to the Greek Titan whose job was to prevent the earth and the sky from “resuming their primordial embrace.”  I checked out Wikipedia to refresh my memory of this story:  “Atlas and one of his brothers, Menoetius, decided to side with the Titans in their war against the Olympians[…] When the Titans were defeated, many of them were confined to Tartarus, but Zeus condemned Atlas to stand at the western edge of Gaia (the earth) and hold up Uranus (the sky)* on his shoulders, to prevent the two from resuming their primordial embrace.  Thus he became Atlas Telamon ‘enduring Atlas’ and became a doublet of Koios, the embodiment around which the heavens revolve.”

Just as Zeus tries to prevent the primordial embrace of Earth and sky by assigning Atlas the work of holding them apart, our anatomical atlas separates our thinking mind from the structure of our moving, sensing and feeling body.  But Atlas becomes the connection or the link, not the separation.  He becomes “the embodiment around which the heavens revolve”.  In Yoga, our breath mediates between the physical body and the mind, just as our atlas serves as the point of union between mind and body.   The five Koshas or “sheaths”  give us a beautiful model for thinking about this.  When you read this, picture a target with Annamaya as the outer ring and walk your way through the layers till you reach Anandamaya Kosha at the bullseye:

Annamaya Kosha is the physical sheath, the body,

Pranamaya Kosha is the energetic sheath, the breath,

Manomaya Kosha is the intellectual sheath, the emotions,

Vijnanamaya Kosha is the Personality Sheath,

and Anandamaya Kosha is the Bliss Sheath, the inner or deeper mind.

Pranamaya or breath is the link between the physical sheath and the three sheaths of the mind. The yogic path gives us a way to recreate the primordial embrace between earth (the body) and sky (the mind and spirit) in our own microcosmic body-system. Take that, Zeus.

*I always thought Atlas was holding up the earth, but classically, Atlas is holding the celestial spheres, not a globe.   …Thank you Wikipedia


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