A fishy tale in a world of sensory overload
Today I have been practising and reflecting on what I think is one of the more interesting yoga postures (asanas). It’s called Matsyendrasana. It’s a classic spinal twist, and one of many that are available in the various texts of hatha yoga. Matsyendrasana is a great twist and it really feels as if my insides are being wrung out, in a healthy way.
You can find many examples of the posture on the net and in most standard text books. Infact, Matsyendrasana is one of the fifteen yoga postures that is described in the 15th century yoga text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Regarded by many as the classic yoga text, it has certainly been influential down the years.
The pose is named after a ‘siddhi’ or yogi-master called Matsyendra, who appears to have lived over a thousand years ago. It’s called “King of the Fishes Pose” and there are some intriguing stories about Matsyendra. Why ‘King of Fishes’? Well it appears he was a kind of Jonah-type chap. There are many different stories with lots of variations, but the one I know and like goes like this:
His parents threw him into the sea as a baby because they were afraid of the consequences when they heard from an astrologer that he was born under ‘auspicious circumstances’. Having been thrown into the sea, a fish swims by and swallows him, as they do. It was a pretty big fish. Probably a whale really. And the baby Matsyendra lives in the belly of this fish.
Meanwhile, elsewhere, Shiva (whose role as a deity is to continually destroy the world in order to recreate it), is being nagged at by his wife, the Goddess Parvati as she desperately wants ‘inside knowledge’ about yoga. Shiva finally consents to and reveals the secrets of yoga to her – at a location where no one else can hear this. They choose a location deep at the bottom of the sea as this is one location that no one could possibly hear such secret knowledge! So you have a picture of Shiva and Parvati having their lessons in yoga and in complete privacy apart from the fish swimming by. Of course, one of the fish swimming by is the fish that swallowed Matsyendra! And the boy, inside the fish, inadvertently hears the teaching and as a result becomes knowledgeable about yoga. A yogi no less. Shiva appears to be ok about this because when he realises that the boy has heard the secret yoga teachings, he blesses the boy, and names him “Matsyendranatha” – “lord of the fishes.”
Matsyendra then spends the next twelve years living in the belly of the fish, and practicing yoga. When he finally emerges on dry land he is an enlightened master and goes on to teach a noble and illumined lineage who to this day have shown us the path of yoga. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is one tangible result of this, and it is used to this day. It is supposed to have been written as a compilation of other long since lost texts by the pupil of Goraksanath, who was the pupil of Matsyendra.
There is something quite intriguing about a baby who is swallowed by a fish, and who learns and practices yoga while inside the belly of that fish for twelve years, while it swims the oceans of the world, finally emerging onto a beach, to become a siddhi or a master of yoga. It’s a pretty interesting cross-reference with Jonah. You know, you wait for a thousand years for a fish to come along and swallow your hero, and then two come along pretty much at the same time.
For me, this is a superb metaphor for a key aspect of yoga practice on and off the mat. Living in the belly of a fish swimming in the sea is symbolic to me of the practice of pratyahara.
Pratyahara is one of the eight limbs (ashtangas) of yoga according to Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. To practice pratyahara means to practice withdrawal of the senses. “Pratyahara” means literally “gaining mastery over external influences.” The analogy that is often used to depict pratyahara is to liken the mind to a turtle’s shell and the limbs of the turtle to the senses. The idea is that the senses are withdrawn from the mind like the turtle withdraws its limbs into the shell. The term is usually translated as “withdrawal from the senses,” but much more is implied in this. Why would we do this? Its aim is to aid meditation. Cut off all that sensory data streaming into your consciousness via your eyes, and ears, nose and mouth, and you are well on the way to reducing the stimulus that makes the mind whirl round and round. You can get no better sensory deprivation than from within the belly of a fish, or a sensory deprivation tank, but pratyahara is a good portable and easily explored practice to try when you are on dry land.
A useful technique to explore pratyahara is known as shanmukhi mudra. A mudra is typically understood to be a “gesture,” or a “mark” or “seal, and shanmukhi can be translated as six gates. So shanmukhi mudra is therefore a hand gesture that supports the closing of the six gates of perception – the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. To practice the mudra, place both hands in front of the face with the elbows pointing outward in line with the shoulders and the finger tips gently touching each other. Gently close each ear with a thumb. Close the eyes and lightly touch the inner corners of the eyes with the index fingers. Place the middle fingers on either side of the nose. The ring fingers are placed above the mouth, and the little fingers below the mouth.
Shanmukhi mudra is usually practiced sitting in a relaxed posture, breathing easily and normally, for five to 10 minutes, often in preparation for meditation. The focus of the practice is simply to withdraw energy, and awareness from the senses, and like the turtle, withdraw inwards.
Of course, one can speculate and hypothesize about the meaning of the story of matsyendra and the whale. It bears an uncanny likeness to the Jonah and the Whale story. However, the story serves to provide a point on which to reflect on a deeper message about the utility and power to be gained by withdrawing the senses. We may not emerge a sidhi or master of yoga, but it will definitely help us relax. At the very least, the simple act of switching off and not engaging with the world out there through the data feed of our senses by practising pratyahara could be an act of sanity, calm and renewal.