The epic Mahabharata (perhaps best known to Westerners for the episode known as the Bhagavad Gita) tells of the asta vasus, the eight elemental deities who attend Lord Indra, the rain king. The vasus represent aspects of nature and its qualities—the firmness of earth, the pervasiveness of space, the shining of dawn, and others far more complex—but they enjoyed dividing their time between heaven and earth, where they were as mischievous a band of troublemakers as any eight brothers could be.
The ringleader, Dyaus, was condemned to live out a long, full human life.
They once got it into their heads to steal Kamadhenu, the wish-fulfilling cow that was the special treasure of the sage Vasishtha. As you know, it is most unwise to enrage a rishi, and the vasus certainly should have known better. Through his yogic powers, Vasishtha instantly divined the thieves' identities, and he cursed them to be born on earth as mortals. After hard pleading by the vasus, Vasishtha finally agreed that seven of them could be freed from earthly life within a year of their births; but the ringleader, Dyaus, was condemned to live out a long, full human life. There is not enough space here to tell the entire story of how Mother Ganga took human form to become mother to the seven brothers, placing each infant in turn in her bosom to drown on earth while being reborn in heaven, or how her husband Santanu felt about that; in any case, the eighth child survived to become the illustrious Bhishma.
Bhishma was King Santanu's first son—at least his first surviving son—and the crown prince of the kingdom of Hastinapur. The apparent deaths of the first seven sons had so strained Santanu's marriage that Ganga left him to resume life as a river goddess, and eventually Santanu resolved to marry again. His chosen beloved, Satyavati, said she would be his wife only if he swore to make her sons heirs to the throne. To reassure her and comfort his father, Bhishma (then also known as Dyaus) took a bhishama pratigya, the “terrible, or severe, oath” of lifelong celibacy and service to whomever sat on the throne. As a result of this great feat of renunciation, Bhishma (for this became his nickname) received the boon of ichcha mrityu, control over his own death: He could choose the time of his death.
Bhishma had all the qualities of a king: He was an erudite scholar, a powerful warrior, and a sagacious statesman. He was a preceptor to those who sat on his father's throne, and he tried repeatedly to end the strife between cousins which culminated in the Mahabharata war and the battle of Kurukshetra. His end came on that battlefield. His entire body pierced by arrows shot by his own star archery pupil, Arjuna, Bhishma lay panting, his head hanging down. The war paused; the adversaries gathered together around their spiritual grandfather. Weeping, Arjuna shot three arrows into the ground to make a warrior's pillow for Bhishma's head. Then he shot another, and Ganga herself rose as a stream of water to quench her son's thirst.
When at last the sun turned north—the position he had been waiting for—with one mighty “Om!” he gave up his breath to the wind.
Bhishma lay dying with the poise of one relaxing in bed at home, and he watched the sun's slow path. In his mind, he waited for the moment to depart from life. His face shone with love for those gathered around him, the children and grandchildren of his celibate life. He instructed them in dharma, righteousness, and in loving and serving the lord. The seven rishis, the great sages who first received and taught the Vedas to human beings, came in the form of swans to attend him and hear his discourse. When at last the sun turned north—the position he had been waiting for—with one mighty “Om!” he gave up his breath to the wind; the wind made room for him, like the hole in a wheel, and carried him to the moon, to the sun and beyond—to the world where, the Upanishads say, there is no sorrow and no snow. And there, the soul which on earth had been Bhishma, the perfect warrior and perfect teacher, once again knew himself as Dyaus—the sky, unlimited and immortal.
Bhishmasana was first developed in the Iyengar tradition as a therapeutic pose for cardiac patients. I first encountered it in the early 1990s, with a set-up of nine to fourteen wooden blocks—in the words of yogini Bobby Clennell, “shavasana on stilts.” It was taught rarely except in Iyengar circles, partly because it is so prop-intensive, and because it is tricky to get into unassisted. Today, simplified versions are popular, using fewer props and more user-friendly names such as “bed of arrows,” “bed of nails,” or even the playful “flying carpet.” I like the modifications, but I also like to remember and honor Bhishma.
For the version below, you will need nine to fourteen blocks of the same thickness, and ideally made of the same material, along with an assistant to help with initial block placement. Once you have figured out exactly how many blocks your body needs and where it needs them, you can do this yourself.
Lie down as you would for shavasana, arms away from your body a little below the shoulders. Place blocks:
-at the base of your skull
-behind the heart, between the shoulder blades
-at the center of your sacrum
-at the backs of your thighs
-at your heels or back ankles
-at your wrists or forearms
You may want additional blocks under the back of your shoulders, where the arm bones meet the top ribs, and also under your calves.
Blocks should all be of the same height. Traditionally, they are placed on end (at their highest height), but adjust if that is too high for your needs. Positioning them horizontally rather than vertically looks less arrow-like, but it may be more comfortable for your body.
If you have shoulder issues and/or very long arms, you may prefer to elevate your wrists higher than your shoulder sockets, and perhaps place additional blocks behind your shoulder sockets (where the arm bones meet the ribs).
Your head should not hang backward; you can use an additional half-block or a folded blanket to create enough height to keep the back of your neck long, and the chin slightly lower than the forehead.
If you have very mobile knees and long legs, you may want to place blocks behind the thighs (just above your knees) or under your calves to protect your knees from hyperextension.
Having established your foundation of blocks, surrender your weight to it. Notice which pressure points are activated. Remain for fifteen minutes. To come out of the pose, bend your knees and place your feet on the floor. Remove the sacral blocks, place your hands on the floor, and raise your chest and head to a seated position.
This pose is a form of shavasana. It is especially good for high-pitta conditions, because allowing air to circulate under you cools the body. It creates a feeling of lightness. It supports the heart, making it a pose of choice for people with cardiac conditions, or people whose emotional hearts feel heavy or closed. To help quiet a super-busy mind, try placing an eyebag at the center of your forehead, or consider practicing a guided relaxation.
How do you get into this pose without assistance? First, make an approximate outline on the floor of where the blocks will be when you lie down on them. Lie down with the blocks within reach. Place blocks under head, heart, and sacrum, keeping the other blocks within reach. Then extend your legs and position the foot blocks. Finally, extend the arms, place your first hand on its block, and wriggle your remaining hand onto the last block. I somewhere acquired a wooden stool that is exactly the height of a yoga block and the width of two blocks. If I begin by sitting on that stool, I can lean back onto the heart and head blocks, scoot forward on the stool until it's under my sacrum, and extend my arms and legs to reach the other blocks. Some people use a bolster or bench under their hips, which works for elevation but eliminates the “acupressure” effect of a block on your sacrum. Be creative!
An excellent minimalist variation of this pose simply uses one block between the shoulder blades and one at the base of the skull. Legs can be bent or straight, wrists elevated or on the floor, as you prefer. This is a wonderful chest and shoulder opener.
In the Mahabharata, there is an inevitability to Bhishma's death. Particular skills, relationships, and choices have brought him to this position. What has brought you to the moment you are now living? If this were your last yoga practice, could you see it as the culmination of your whole life? If you could choose the moment and circumstances of your death, what would they be? Who would come to your deathbed? Bhishma was condemned to human life by his youthful mischief; but he ended it as a beloved and revered elder. What have you made of your life; what legacy will you leave?
We cannot avoid the first arrow, but we can avoid the second by learning to be present and nonreactive in the face of discomfort.
Life shoots arrows at us, said the Buddha. Human life is a source of dukkha (discomfort, suffering, unsatisfactoriness) by its very nature: we grow old, fall ill, and even pleasant experiences don't last. Those realities are the first arrow. But when we respond with grief and distress, blame and regret, or by clinging desperately to a pleasure that is doomed to end, it is like shooting ourselves with a second arrow. We cannot avoid the first arrow, but we can avoid the second by learning to be present and nonreactive in the face of discomfort. Patanjali tells us, “Heyam dukkham anagatam,” future discomfort can be avoided. Bhishma illustrates this principle through his calm acceptance of his wounds. Suffering physically, he uses his remaining time on earth to comfort and teach his family and students—the very people whose arrows pierce his body.
The next time life shoots an arrow through you, can you be Bhishma?