This pose is at least a half-thousand years old.
It is first seen in one of our most dramatic early images of yoga, near the year 1500.
We find it at the pilgrimage site of Sri Sailam, about 300 miles northeast of Bangalore, India.
There, in a carving on the north wall of a temple named Mallikarjuna, a yogi calmly holds himself aloft in the pose.
A little bit earlier we find the pose elegantly described in the words of the c. 1450 Hatha Yoga Pradipika. It says, “Settle in Padmasana. Put the hands between the knees and thighs. Place the hands on the Earth. Lift into the sky. This is Kukkutasana.”
In the circa 1700 Gheranda Samhita we get a little more detail. It adds that we ought to, lift ourselves “up to our elbows.”1
Kukkutasana’s integration into Hatha Yoga’s system is indicated by its appearance in our first illustrated manual of yoga–in 1600.
Called The Ocean of Life, this book was composed in Persian around 1550, then rendered as a picture book fifty years later.
It comes from the court of a Mughal Prince named Salim, and the book was written by a Sufi mystic to teach Hatha Yoga to his followers.
The yogi doing Kukkutasana there appears to be settled in the pose with his hands on the Earth while his eyes reflect on something very inward–or very far away.
Traditional yoga practitioners used hundreds of methods to create, refine and move energy in the body.
They believed Kukkutasana created vira, from which we get the English word, “virility.”
Vira is a powerful focused energy with a “rooster-ish” vitality.
Sexuality is a pure form of human life-energy, and it is provoked in this pose and others in ancient practice. Yet yogis kept this energy (called vira) reserved and redirected to test the body’s capacity for containing prana (life force)—and ultimately—the energy was focused toward transforming the body to allow vibrations of awareness to register in it more profoundly—and therefore create greater insights into the self and the cosmos.
The collected power of the yogis, their vira, made them supremely potent—like the male rooster!
Because it is so noisy, colorful and proud, Indian mythology has much to say about the rooster.
Symbolically, it heralds wisdom’s dawn and the dispersal of the darkness of ignorance—worthy goals for yogis.
The lord of the yogis, Shiva, has a son Karttikeya, who is the god of war. With his great integrity, he sometimes takes the peacock as his emblem, but he also takes the rooster.
“Kukkuta,” is Sanskrit for rooster, and it probably comes from the way Indians hear the rooster’s disciplined call to “wake up!”
Westerners hear, “cocka-doodle-doo,” but Indians hear “kuku”!
The 22 poses shown in the Ocean of Life were followed 200 years later by the 122 poses illustrated in the Sri Tattvanidhi (“The Illustrious Treasure of Realities”).
This book was composed in the kingly court of India’s Mysore state near 1840, and—strangely—its yoga pictures include methods of Western fitness training.
The 36th pose of the Sri Tattvanidhi displays a top-knotted yogi doing Kukkutasana.3
In 1960, the yoga master, Swami Vishnu Devananda, showed off the pose in his best-seller, The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga. There, he guides us into it with nearly as much brevity as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. He lists brief benefits, too, saying only, “wrist and shoulder muscles are exercised in this posture.” 4
The pose is inherently glamorous because of its weird shape and difficulty.
Since it speaks of yoga’s sophistication, it was a great fit for the model Christy Turlington’s appearance on the cover of Time in 2001. Turlington has done much to promote yoga, and her Time cover appeared during a great leap forward in yoga’s popularity near the turn of the millennium.
Just as Kukkutasana marked a new dawn for yoga in recent times, a New York Herald article about yoga’s popularity in that city, featured a drawing of the pose on March 27th, 1898–more than 100 years before Turlington’s Time cover!
B.K.S. Iyengar’s, Light on Yoga replaced Devananda’s Complete Book of Yoga as the go-to source during yoga’s heyday of the mid-1960s. In the years since, that book has probably done more to influence yoga than any other publication before or after. Iyengar does Kukkutasana there.
Writing about it, he modestly rates its difficulty level at 24 on a 60-point scale!
As with Devananda and the classical texts, He describes it with surprising brevity. Taking the sum of its benefits, he says it merely “strengthens the wrists and the abdominal walls.” 5
Though its exact position varies depending on who you talk to, many authorities say Kukkutasana is counted as the 18th pose in the “first series” called Yoga Chikitsa of the famous Ashtanga Vinyasa pose system.
After K. Pattabhi Jois began teaching Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga outside India in 1975, it became the first globally-recognized moving style of yoga. David Williams, Norman Allen and Nancy Gilgoff met its main teacher, Jois in Mysore, India in 1973, and then brought Jois and Ashtanga—with its Kukkutasana!—to America and the world. Today, Jois’ grandson, Sharath Jois, is the main guru of the lineage.
How to do it
Though early texts spoke to a male audience, both men and women get similar benefits from the pose.
With the chest puffed forward, and the hands reaching downward like bird feet, the human body seems birdlike in Kukkutasana.
This pose comes late in a yoga session, if at all!
Obviously, it is difficult and begs for a full warm-up of the core, thighs, groins, hands, and arms.
Unless the inner thigh rotates up easily (“outer rotation”) and the outside edge of the foot turns in and up easily (“supination”), and the legs are relatively thin enough so that each foot can lay over the opposite hip crease, the foundational “seat” of the pose can’t even be done.
But, if you can do the leg fold (called Padmasana), then make your hands like blades, and thrust them through the space where the inner thigh and Achilles tendon meet.
The palms then press toward the floor and the fingers suck back toward the palms’ center-point.
Iyengar’s instructions in Light on Yoga say to touch the thumbs touch together,6 but as you can see from our pictures, this is not always done.
Inhale, and hoist your tail off the ground by engaging the core muscles. The energy lock in the pelvic floor called mula, found at the perineum in–is to be released in this pose. The head turns slightly up and you take a gaze toward the nose (a focus-point called nasagrai dristi).
Do all this, and you’re on your way to generating vira in Kukkutasana!
1“up to our elbows”: The Gheranda Samhita, 2004, James Mallinson, trans., Woodstock, NY: Yoga Vidya, p. 40.
2“very far away”: Yoga: The Art of Transformation, 2013, Debra Diamond, ed., Washington DC: The Smithsonian Institution, p. 150 – 159.
3“as the 36th pose”: Sjoman, Norman, 1999 (1996) The Yoga of the Mysore Palace, New Delhi: Abhinav, p. 20.
4“sums up its benefits”: Vishnu Devananda, Swami, 1960, The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga, p. 160.
5“the abdominal walls”: Iyengar, B. K. S., 1979 (1966), Light on Yoga, New York: Schocken, p. 141.
6“touch the thumbs together”: Ibid.