“Makara: A huge sea animal, which has been taken to be the crocodile, the shark, the dolphin, but is probably a fabulous animal.”
—A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology
The makara is the vehicle of Varuna, the god of the ocean, and it graces the banner of Kama Deva, the god of desire. Denizen of the deep, the makara is the vehicle for the ruling energy of the second chakra, the svadhishthana chakra, which manifests on the physical plane in the genitals and lower back. Svadhishthana means “her own abode,” referring to kundalini shakti, who rightfully resides in the watery world of the second chakra—the realm of desire and the primal creative urge. In this chakra the makara represents the ferocious, bestial power of desire which all too often may drive us to ruin. And yet, when properly directed, it is also the very current that carries us through life with joy and spontaneity and connects us to the creative power of the universe.
Training the Monster
How can makarasana, commonly known as the crocodile posture, train this oceanic monster? Physically, it’s not a difficult posture; it is taught and practiced as a relaxation pose, and it is one of the best postures for working with diaphragmatic breathing. In fact, relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing are the salient features of the crocodile pose, and though subtle, these are extremely powerful techniques in the practice of yoga, as well as in managing our emotions and health in daily life.
To assume the pose, stretch out on the floor face down. Spread the extended legs about shoulder-width apart with the toes turned out and heels turned in. Fold your arms, place your hands on the opposite elbows, and draw the elbows in so the shoulders and upper chest are slightly off the floor. Bow your head and rest the forehead on the forearms.
Alternatively, cross the arms, bringing the hands to the opposite shoulders, and cradle the head in the crook of the elbows.
In either of these versions, the abdomen rests fully on the floor, the upper chest is slightly elevated, and the weight of the upper torso rests on the abdomen and lower rib cage. Close your eyes, and relax the face, shoulders, abdomen, pelvis, legs, and feet.
Not everyone will be comfortable in makarasana, especially for the 5 to 10 or more minutes prescribed for breath training, so you can modify it as necessary without losing the essential elements. If drawing the elbows under the shoulders to elevate the chest strains the neck or upper spine, try extending the upper arms further from the torso to reduce the strain in the back or neck. If the shoulders are also uncomfortable, uncross the arms and rest your chin on the floor with the arms overhead and slightly to the side, elbows bent and hands one on top of the other or lightly touching.
Another alternative for makarasana is to rest the upper chest on a thin cushion or folded blanket or towel. This is easier on the shoulders and neck and lets you breathe freely and easily through the nose (the chin hangs over the support). A few people will find turning the toes out and heels in uncomfortable and will want to do the opposite—let the toes turn in and the heels point out.
Relax in whatever version of the pose you have chosen, and notice where your attention goes. Most likely you’ll find that your awareness is drawn to the movement in the mid-torso and to the process of breathing. Bringing the arms overhead restricts the movement of the chest, which guides the breath lower into the torso. And because the abdomen is resting on the floor with the weight of the torso pressing down on it, you’ll feel the breath pressing the belly against the floor, gently expanding the lower back and flaring the lower ribs (especially the floating ribs) out to the side. This is the hallmark of diaphragmatic breathing and it is especially evident in the full version of the posture with the chest off the floor.
The diaphragm is the main muscle responsible for respiration. It attaches to the lumbar vertebrae (lower back), the tip of the breastbone, and the ribs, and separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. When for a variety of reasons the diaphragm is not used properly, dysfunctional breathing patterns and a host of ills result. Lest you have any doubt about the virtues of diaphragmatic breathing, its correlation with the harmonious functioning of the nervous system and the relaxation response has been discussed at length in the modern literature on yoga. However, poor and inefficient breathing habits are often so deeply ingrained that it is difficult to deliberately breathe properly, let alone when we are not thinking about it.
The crocodile posture facilitates diaphragmatic breathing by immobilizing the chest (because the arms are overhead), and allows you to relax the abdomen and back (because you are lying on the floor). And because the abdomen is pressed into the floor, the breath does not drop into the lower belly. Constrained by the floor and by the tautness in the chest and upper back, the breath fills in the lower back and sides at the waist. This breathing into the contained torso creates heat, which the Gheranda Samhita tells us is the effect of makarasana. The posture is also calming and deeply rejuvenating.
Relaxation and Makarasana
Makarasana is a particularly effective relaxation pose, partly because diaphragmatic breathing facilitates relaxation, and partly because the release of tension is directed into the lower back and mid-torso where the diaphragm attaches. These tension-prone areas are affected by bad breathing habits, bad posture, and weak or tight muscles all up and down the spine and in the pelvis. And because the breath mirrors the state of mind, tension in the diaphragm may reflect distorted and dysfunctional states of tension that linger in the musculature long after the original stimulus is gone.
The lower back is also tension-prone, partly because it is affected by the diaphragm and breathing patterns, but also because of its weight-bearing and energy-transmitting role in connecting the pelvis and the chest. And because the lower back is controlled by the second chakra (the realm of the makara), many emotional tensions settle into that region as well as into the diaphragm. When the lower back becomes the locus of stiffness, aches, and pains, the makara is not happy. Makarasana may appease her.
An Unbeatable Combination
Other relaxation poses don’t make diaphragmatic breathing quite so easy, and other postures favoring diaphragmatic breathing are not as relaxing and can therefore reinforce tension in the lower back and abdomen. There is no pose better than crocodile pose for the combination of diaphragmatic breathing and relaxation, which are prerequisites for the higher practices of yoga, including meditation.
For this reason, makarasana is a good pose at the beginning of an asana session, between postures where a rest is appreciated (particularly after the cobra and bow poses), and on its own in the middle of the day—say for a few minutes before lunch, and/or a few minutes after work or before supper, or even before bed to ensure healthy relaxed sleep. You may find it useful right after waking up, especially if you wake up anxious, congested, after unpleasant dreams, or otherwise ill at ease. The first thing in the morning, makarasana establishes proper breathing and a centered state of mind from which you go on either to other breathing practices or meditation or to your pancakes and orange juice.
Practicing makarasana 10 minutes a day, or better yet, 10 minutes twice a day, will bring much-needed relaxation and help establish the habit of diaphragmatic breathing. These are palliatives for emotional turmoil and vehicles for weathering the stresses of life with clarity and equilibrium. Grabbing hold of the reins of the breath to skillfully guide and direct the emotional monster from the oceanic depths, the heat of passion becomes the fire of self-transformation—a fabulous feat for a simple but fabulous posture.
Myth or Reality?
The makara may not be a fantastic creature after all. About 200 million years ago during the Age of Dinosaurs, the reptilian plesiosaurs, resembling nothing so much as the fabulous makara, cruised the shallow Tethys Sea off the coast of Gondwanaland, that ancient massive mother-continent in the South Sea whose breakup spawned not only India, but also Africa, Australia, and Antarctica. From the distribution of plesiosaurs in the fossil record, paleontologists deduce that India was once part of Gondwanaland. Carrying the memory of plesiosaurs deep in its flesh, India drifted north, finally crashing into the Asian subcontinent, where it sits today. The Himalayas rise along the suture between the continents.