I often read sections of books over and over again before moving on. Lately I’ve been stuck on a chapter called Embodied Awareness in Donna Farhi’s book, “Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living.” I wish I could copy the entire chapter here, but I will settle for these two wonderful paragraphs:
The limitless nature of consciousness is mirrored in the asana repertoire itself. A testament to the vast creativity of our yogic forebears, the repertoire is drawn from nature, with each posture representing some aspect or expression of creation. We practice being the expression of trees, insects, birds, mammals, children, sages, gods, and mountains. Every asana that has come down to us today began with an authentic inner impulse that was felt and experienced by someone at some time and then recorded so that it might be shared. Literally translated as “comfortable seat,” the word asana means to relax into the consciousness of life as it manifests through the expression of each posture.
When we practice asanas we try to rediscover the origin of each movement and thus the original meaning of each gesture. This discovery cannot be made by simply mimicking another person or mechanically reproducing the postures. For the asana to transform us, we enter the total feeling state of that form. By becoming a fish, bird, tree, or mountain, we reinvoke our connectedness with all creation at each stage of evolution.
These words have the potential to transform an asana practice! Staying connected with the meaning of each posture—with what it would feel like to be a fish or a snake or a mountain—sparks the imagination and keeps the mind rooted in the body while also connected to the world. This is no small feat.
Let’s think about Fish Pose or Matsyasana, for example. As a native of the Pacific Northwest, when I think about fish, I can’t help but think of the spawning salmon, fighting the upstream current to find the place of their birth.
In an excerpt I read in the October, 2010 issue of Yoga Journal from the book “Myths of the Asanas” by Alanna Kaivalya and Arjuna van der Kooij, I learned that a fish was the very first yoga student! According to the myth shared by the authors, Shiva discovered yoga after 10,000 years of meditation. Sitting alongside a river, Shiva shared what he had learned with Parvati, his beloved. A fish, with a gift for careful listening, overheard their conversation and was able to reach enlightenment by the end of Shiva’s discussion—making Shiva the first guru and Matsya the first student. The authors encourage modern day yoga students to follow in the footsteps of Matsya and carefully listen to their teachers and to always remember the value of the relationship between teacher and student.
Weaving together Farhi’s thoughts about embodying the original meaning of the pose, the mythical histories of the asana as they have been handed down to us, and our own personal connections with the various postures creates a wonderful tapestry from which to draw inspiration for our practice. I know my practice of Matyasana will never be the same after studying and meditating on this posture.
Unfamiliar with the pose? Check out this link about the posture from Yoga Journal. Can you see the form of it in this jumping salmon?
Fish Pose stimulates the immune system and massages the heart muscle and lungs. Practicing this pose can help open clear communication. It is also a wonderful pose for those having trouble breathing.
As yoga teachers, I think it’s important to convey the English meaning of posture names for students unfamiliar with Sanskrit. Practicing Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) is one thing, embodying a Cobra is another thing entirely! Rediscovering and reconnecting with the roots, meaning and gesture of each movement can transform our practice and lead us toward greater self-knowledge, which of course is the goal of yoga.
Next time you’re standing in front of a tree, or if you’re lucky, a mountain, practice Vrksasana (tree pose) or Tadasana (mountain pose). And then next time your practicing asana in your living room or local yoga studio, imagine the tree or mountain you were standing in front of as you “enter the total feeling state of that form.” The possibilities of this back and forth connection are endless. Both your asana practice and your relationship to nature and life will be changed and enriched.
I would love to hear what you discover!