There are alot of modern poses that are shockingly complex and hard to do.
We are the heirs of thousands of years of posemaking, yet yogis still passionately pursue the “newer new,” formulating asanas that are every more complex and hard-to-do.
Trusty old Mayurasana stubbornly persists in the “complex and hard-to-do” category—even though it’s been around for half a thousand years.
It is described in the 500-year-old Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP).
As you can see in the image below, its shape is unusual and—arguably—unnatural!
It offers practitioners a delightful physical challenge and working toward it enhances our balance, strength, and endurance.
But is this reason enough to pursue the pose?
The Old Texts
When we look at yoga history, we notice that the old texts offer simple pose instructions, while making BIG promises about what poses can do for you.
Mayuranasa is an exemplary case!
Its descriptions offer some of the most interesting promises we find in yoga history and philosophy.
The HYP, chapter 1, verses 30 – 31, tells us:
“Hold the Earth with both hands. Place the sides of the navel on the elbows. Rise high above the ground like a stick. This is Mayurasana.
ThIS Sri [holy] Mayurasana overcomes defects and quickly destroys all diseases—enlargement of the spleen, enlargement of the abdomen, and so on.
It stimulates the stomach’s fire, incinerates all bad food, and makes the deadly Kalakuta poison digestible.”
Perhaps most interesting, it makes the grand claim that it “makes the deadly Kalakuta poison digestible.”
THE KALKUTA POISON
Kalakuta is a funny word.
It draws us into a side-story about the destroyer god, Shiva.
Most early hatha yoga practitioners probably worshipped Shiva as their personal deity, or ishta devata (though, one particular form of Shiva—like the fierce Bhairava or the lordly Adinatha—was probably their focus)—so it’s not strange to find a word that steers us back to Shiva in an old book on yoga.
“Kalakuta” comes from a myth at least as old as the epic poem called The Mahabharata (4th century, CE). In it, we find a story about gods and demons churning an ocean of milk at the beginning of time (you know–something we see all the time).
The medical science of Ayurveda is produced by this churning, but an awful poison (it’s opposite) is produced, too.
The Kalakuta’s gases start to choke the demons and gods and, at their behest, the immortal Shiva goes to work, heroically swallowing the poison down.
This turns his throat blue (hence one of his epithets, “Blue Throat,” Nilakantha).
WHAT “INVINCIBLE DIGESTION” MEANS
At face value, the HYP is promising that we can eat anything wihout it bugging us.
But at the transcendent level, the HYP is promising us something more Shiva-like.
It is telling us we’ll be so transformed by our work in yoga that even life’s poisonous experiences won’t disgust us or make us afraid.
Our psychic digestion will be so god-like that we’ll integrate life’s diverse and sometimes-difficult experiences easily into our view of ourselves and our world.
Life’s events won’t give us any stomach-upset!
In other words, Mayurasana promises us unshakeable equanimity.
MAYURASANA AND THE GREAT KRISHNAMCHARYA
As legend would have it, during the years 1918 to 1925, K studied with a terribly long-lived teacher (reputed to be 230 years old!).
This teacher had the terribly long name of Yogeshwara Sri Ramamohana Brahmachari Guru Maharaja of Mukta Narayan Ksetra, and he was hard on Krishnamacharya—who was in his 30s at the time.
Reportedly, Brhamachari forced him to eat heaps of ghee (clarified butter), then put weights on his legs and do Mayurasana outside their Himalayan cave in the thin air—and on the rocky ground coated in snow!
An old Hindi proverb tells us, Amrit paane se pahle vish peena padta hai, “Before one can get Amrita, one must drink poison.
“Amrita” is the nectar of immorality and, in worldly terms, it is a symbol of success.
This saying tells us that much must be endured before achievement comes.
In this story, we see Krishnamacharya drinking his poison (doing hard work!) before his fantastic success came later in life.
HOW WE DO IT
This is obviously an advanced pose. It requires fortuitous body proportions, low back muscles, and courage.
There are two ways to get it done.
One is much easier than the other!
The two ways differ by elbow placement.
If you put the rib cage on the elbows and keep the arms from coming together, the pose is easier—because the bones of the ribcage rest on top of the bones of the upper arms.
If you, “place the sides of the navel on the elbows,” as the HYP tells us to do, the pose is more challenging because the arms have only the soft flesh of the belly to push into and leverage the body “high above the ground like a stick.”
That said, it is the difficult form of the pose which gives benefit to our physical digestion.
If your ribcage is narrow or your legs are much longer than your torso, the challenge of Mayurasana will be greater.
Practitioners usually make the mistake of thinking that you must lift the legs, but if you focus on this, the pose will probably fail.
To warm up, do some Locust Pose (Shalabhasana) to tone the low back.
As you do this, practice engaging the hamstrings.
Warm up the wrists by turning their backs away from you and pressing your fingers on the ground as you lean the shoulders away to open the heel side of the hand—then practice your plank with the fingers pointed backwards, too.
If you know Uddiyana breathing, this is a good prep for making the abs firm like a wall, so the elbows can push into them and lift the body—if you do the hard form of the pose.
READY FOR MAYURASANA?
With the wrists turned backwards and the upper arm bones under the body, lean forward over your bent arms.
As you lean, the toes will drag forward on the ground, THEN engage the low back muscles and hams WITH GENTLENESS.
FALL FORWARD. This will allow the legs to lift very lightly (not dramatically) off the floor.
Do not be afraid of a face-plant!
The breath may be constrained and shallow; nonetheless, hold for five of these bated breaths (or a five-count in the mind).
Then watch your poison intake!
This is Mayurasana!
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