One day, mid-flow, I noticed the rest of the class was already down-dogging it while I was still pulling my heart through my arms in bhujangasana (cobra). Which surprised me.
I’ve always avoided bhujangasana. Teachers bust me for rushing through it. And when I have managed to stay in the pose for the requisite number of breaths I see how easily you can avoid a pose even while you are in it. Something I should have learned during my third year of dating a gay man.
I asked myself what had changed to make me want to crawl inside bhujangasana like it was my favorite snakeskin print dress. Yes, my lower back was stronger, but it was more than that. Then one day I heard myself saying there is nothing but change anymore.
As it turns out, the bhujanga in bhujangansana means snake and the bhuj in bhujanga actually means to bend or curve; to change. As I practiced the pose knowing this, I realized that my love affair with bhujangasana was blossoming because it has become a way for me to express my feelings about living through this time of curves in the road. Which was another thing that surprised me. I don’t usually think about Yoga as an expressive art form. I think about it, as it’s usually spoken of, as a technology, a science, a healing modality, a tool and now apparently a competitive sport as well.
But, as the dancing Shiva reminds us, Yoga is also a dance. And to me, bhujangasana almost perfectly expresses the feeling of transitioning. The long straight runway of legs (okay for me, the short straight runway of legs) grounding all the way from the tip of the big toes to the pelvic bone, where suddenly everything starts to change.
The shape of bhujangasana is about transition and its placement in a sun salutation or flow series is transitional too. So it’s usually treated as a pass through pose. More like a tree to stand under than a house to live in.
And it is a great way to get from chatarunga to down dog. It’s not the only way, but a decidedly elegant and interesting way.
Not to mention beneficial. Cobra is obviously good for the spine but also apparently good for everything from balancing the thyroid to improving digestion to developing the psychic channels. And maybe it was that very psychic channel that was leading me to look deeper and deeper into the cobra.
It started to seem to me that to avoid bhujangasana was to avoid the essence of Yoga. After all, one of the primary goals of the practice is to raise the mysterious, coiled, serpenty kundalini (literally fire snake, or serpent power) up through the chakras (energy centers). In a sense every yogi is a snake charmer. Every yogi is saying I have a snake coiled up in my ass and I have to get it out! I notice in meditation these days I have a very visceral sense of the two serpents weaving through my chakras, around my spine, like they do on the caduceus. Of course the serpent is not the only animal in Yoga. A Hatha practice is filled with animals: dogs, birds, camels, lions, the exuberant monkey Hanuman, and even half-dead bugs! It’s a virtual class menagerie.
But the snake is the central Yoga animal. Without the snake there is no Yoga. In fact Patanjali, the author of the famous Yoga Sutra, is generally depicted as half man/half serpent, a human torso resting on a coiled snake, a kind of serpentine centaur. And although it’s never mentioned in any compendium of symbology, the serpent seems to represent the sutra. The thread. The illusive thread. The thing onto which the beads of our mala are strung. The thing that connects each of our breaths. The shaft of life threading our chakras together.
The serpent, despite its bad reputation as a tempter and a demon, is the naked truth of ourselves upon which we hang each mood, each part of ourselves, each of the days of our lives.
So class became all about cobra for me. And then I started to realize that serpents have been snaking their way through my consciousness for the past year. We all talk about the pesky ego-driven and distracting Monkey Mind. But lately I feel I’ve developed what I think of as Snake Mind. I think about snakes and serpents and all things snakey and serpenty: DNA, DNA alignment and re-genetics, sound waves, light waves, the new wave, wavelengths and the Milky Way, which the Mayans called The Cosmic Serpent. And I even think about them in a snakey way. I find my mind not hopping around in that torturous playful monkey way, but slithering, creating threads of thought that at their best illuminate pathways of connection. At their worst, though, these snakey thoughts overlap and tangle, and threaten to overwhelm my glimmers of single-minded wholistic clarity with a giant knot of interconnectedness.
But when I’m practicing bhujangasana it’s the strong spine open hearts serpent spirit that I plug into. In fact bhujangasana is sometimes called nagasasna, nag being another word for snake. And it struck me that the Nag in the famous Nag Champa incense must refer to the coiling smoke. (Champa is a particular flower.)
So the other day as I was wriggling into the pose I started to think of the lower half of my body as an incense stick and the upper half as the snakey trails of scent. And instead of feeling constricted in the pose I felt very free. I imagined the very top of my head as the ash: Hot! I mean with the intellect falling away.
Oh why do we have to rush out of this pose? There’s so much here! So much in this most yogic of poses. And in this most transitional of times.
Beth Lapides and Greg Miller can be seen being mates on Yogamates.com talking about using comedy as a Yoga teaching tool. More info on their work both as individuals and partners at uncabaret.com and bethlapides.com.
By Beth Lapides