This article explores the symbolism of the Bird of Paradise yoga pose (Svarga Dvijasana) and outlines the points of strength and flexibility needed to feel your way into the shape.
For years, I thought Bird of Paradise (Svarga Dvijasana) referred to its literal meaning – a bird hanging out in paradise. I believed the name to be quite ironic because I never felt anything close to graceful or light while making my ascent from the ground to enter the shape. Neither do most people in an all-levels yoga practice, from what I can gather from the huffing, puffing, and heavy-hitting exits. “Paradise” seems unfitting for the level of struggle that this posture often involves. Yet understanding the names of yoga postures frequently require a stretch of the imagination, so I never stretched mine far enough to question the name of this particular one.
In fact, there is family of birds named bird-of-paradise (Paradisaeidae) that are found in New Guinea and surrounding islands. These birds are known for their vibrant scarlet, green, blue, and yellow plumages that they display through wild dances and mating rituals.
Yet the yoga posture refers not to the bird, but the plant of paradise. The bird-of-paradise flowering plant (Strelitzia reginae) is a member of the banana family that originates from South Africa. This plant is named for the exotic shape of its vividly colorful flowers, which resemble the beak and elaborate head plumage of the bird-of-paradise birds.
Ironically, Africa is one of the few places in the world that doesn’t traditionally attach cultural value to flowers, according to Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire. Before colonization, flowers played little role in religious observances or social rituals. This is theorized to occur both because of economic and ecological reasons: 1) the culture of flowers is a luxury that has historically been unsupportable; 2) the desert climate means that the limited range of flowers that do grow in Africa bloom fleetingly, then disappear during the dry season (although South Africa may be an exception from the rule because its terrain supports a vast array of plant biodiversity).
So how have birds of paradise become postcard exotic plants and official ninth anniversary presents that now grow throughout the warm climates of California, Hawaii, Florida, and greenhouses around the Western world? Birds of paradise were said to be “discovered” in South Africa by the English botanist Sir Joseph Banks in 1773. He gave the exotic flower the name Strelitzia after the region in Germany where the current Queen of England was born and delivered them back home to Kew Gardens in England. Thus, much in the same way that yoga was appropriated and columbused by the Western world, birds of paradise became adopted as a take-home relic of tropical paradise.
When I learned that the yoga posture of paradise symbolizes a flowering plant, suddenly the pose clicked for me. This is not to say that my Bird of Paradise became the most elegant of the flock, but I began to understand new layers of meaning behind the pose. Of course, it’s a plant. Rising from the ground up from a bound Malasana (Garland Pose/yogi squat) or Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose) feels like a bud bursting forth from its stable roots in the Earth. Grounding, stability, and strength in the legs are the central element of the ascent.
Once up and grounded in Bird of Paradise, the “flowering” of the posture requires two elements: 1) opening the heart by kissing the shoulder blades into the spine; and 2) recruiting the strength of the hip flexor muscles to extend the lifted leg. Leveraging our heart and hips bring us up from the grounding of our legs to the places of our bodies that are symbolic of love (the heart) and sensuality (the hips). How perfectly fitting for the process of flowering, which is plants’ mating display to attract the birds and the bees who will then spread their genes through pollen.
Rooting down through our legs forms the foundation of Bird of Paradise, and leveraging the heart and hips allow our postures to blossom into their full form. Nature and asana alike can provide such a telling mirror for humanity. Through a social justice lens, we could see Bird of Paradise as a sign of colonization – a pose likely named by white people after a plant that has been colonized and attempted often ungracefully in a practice that has been colonized.
Yet on a lighter note, Bird of Paradise as a metaphor for navigating the unstable air of romantic relationships: once we are grounded, rooted, and at peace with ourselves, we can blossom our energy outward to others. In yet another, more poetic vein, we could observe Bird of Paradise as fundamentally connected to all flowers, which Pollan suggests to be metaphorical of life itself. He philosophizes:
“What about (humans)? How did we make it (here)? We did very well by the flower… We gazed even farther into the blossom of a flower and found something more: the crucible of beauty, if not art, and maybe even a glimpse into the meaning of life. For look into a flower, and what do you see? Into the very heart of nature’s double nature – that is, the contending energies of creation and dissolution, the spring toward complex form and the tidal pull away from it… There (in the flower), the achievement of order against all odds and its blithe abandonment. There, the perfection of art and the blind flux of nature. There, somehow, both transcendence and necessity. Could that be it – right there, in a flower – the meaning of life?”
So what is Bird of Paradise symbolic of? Its literal meaning of a bird? Its supposed meaning of a plant? Nature’s guide to romance? An evil relic of colonial trauma? An indication of interconnectedness of life? In the case of this pose, both beauty and meaning are in the eye of the beholder.