Are you Harry Potter astride your flying broomstick in pursuit of the golden snitch in the Quidditch games? No, you’re a peacock, flying fast, like a stick with its own volition, barreling headfirst through space in defiance of gravity. And instead of being in the magical land of Hogwarts, you are flying high on your yoga mat. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But, oh! The desire to fly!
In yoga practice, mayurasana not only resembles the peacock, it also invokes the peacock’s special powers. To balance its long neck and extravagant tail feathers, which are carried straight out behind it both in flight and on the ground (unless it’s fanning them for a mating ritual), the peacock’s stout legs are situated at the center of its torso, exactly where we place our arms and hands at the navel center to become the “feet” of mayurasana.
According to the yoga tradition, the navel center is the home of digestive fire, responsible for radiant health. Imbalances at the navel center result in digestive problems and are the root of many illnesses. Mayurasana strongly affects the liver, gall bladder, pancreas, intestines, kidneys, and circulatory system, as well as the nerve plexus in the abdomen. As a result, the peacock pose strengthens and tones digestion, invigorates the entire body, and is particularly treasured for cleansing and eliminating toxins.
In addition to its signature tail feathers, the peacock is noted for its ability to eat poisonous snakes, scorpions, and other odious reptiles and insects. Its digestion is so strong that it turns poison into nourishment. And this is exactly what the Hatha Yoga Pradipika says of mayurasana: Even kalakuta, the archetypal deadly poison, can be digested by one who practices the peacock pose.
On the subtle level, a powerful “digestion” allows us to handle more than just a dinner of pizza and cheesecake. Greed, anger, jealousy, anxiety, insecurity, sadness, and spiritual ignorance—these are the more subtle toxins needing digestion or elimination. The energetic essence (or prana) of the digestive fire invokes enthusiasm, courage, vitality, willpower, self-confidence, and self-mastery. This fire is the force of transformation, not only of food to energy and heat, but of the base metal of instinct and limited self-awareness to the gold of pure consciousness. It is the fire of discrimination that illuminates consciousness.
In Sanskrit, the name kalakuta literally means “time trick” or the deception of time—because the yogis believe that the failure to recognize our timeless, immortal self is the poison of spiritual ignorance. To swallow and digest kalakuta, they say, is to unlock the power hidden in the body and nervous system that allows us to transform our exclusive identification with physical existence, thus escaping time, and also gravity.
Transformation, experience of flight, cure of diseases, and resistance to poisons...all without attending Hogwarts.
Mayurasana should be practiced in the middle or near the end of a complete sequence of postures—preferably after sun salutations, standing poses, and seated postures. The following short sequence will help you develop the strength and integration you’ll need to master the pose.
Hip Balance and Scale Pose
These poses strengthen the lumbar spine and integrate the pelvis and legs with the upper body. For hip balance, sit with your spine straight, feet flat on the floor in front of you. Press your hands into the floor just behind the pelvis to support and elongate the erect, neutral spine. Then bring your arms alongside the legs, keeping the length in the torso. Hold the back of your thighs if you lose your alignment. Note the engagement in the lower abdomen and deep in the pelvis. Now lift one foot and then the other, so you are balancing on your sit bones. Your weight may shift back slightly, but don’t slouch or let your spine buckle. Straighten your legs if strength and flexibility allow. Hold for several breaths.
Then lower the feet to the floor, cross the ankles, or sit in padmasana (lotus pose) for tolasana (scale pose). Place your hands on the floor near the hips and lift your pelvis and legs up off the floor. Lift strongly through the pelvis and legs, so your arms and shoulders are not doing all the work. Hold for several breaths, then exhale down. Repeat the hip balance and then tolasana.
Shalabhasana (the locust pose) develops strength in the lumbar spine and back of the body. The movement in the legs and pelvis is the same as in mayurasana. Lie on your stomach with your legs together and your chin on the floor. Slide your arms under your body with the forearms as close together as possible. Keep your arms straight and either interlace your fingers thumb side down, or press your palms or fists into the floor. Inhaling, press your arms down into the floor and lift the legs, reaching out and up through the toes. Keep the legs no more than hip-width apart. Hold briefly, then lower slowly back to the floor. Sit back in balasana(child’s pose) to release the lower back.
To avoid strain in the wrists during mayurasana, open up the fingers, hands, forearms, and shoulders with this preparatory stretch. Sit on your heels with your arms straight out in front of you, hands on the floor with the fingers pointed toward the body, little fingers touching. Spread your fingers and press evenly through the palms toward the floor. Move your arms toward each other. Intensify the stretch by strongly pressing the heels of your hands into the floor and at the same time lengthening the forearms by drawing the torso and upper back away from the arms. Press your forearms away from the body, taking care not to hyper extend your elbows. Then release and rotate your hands a few times in both directions and shake out your wrists.
Sit on your heels with your knees apart. Place your hands on the floor between the knees with the fingers pointing straight toward the pelvis. Bend your elbows and lean forward, bringing the elbows into the sides of the abdomen as low down as possible. Your torso rests on the upper arms, and your head will come to the floor. Shift your weight forward and bring the legs straight out behind you, toes turned under. Contract the pelvic floor, roll the thighs in toward each other, and use your toes to shift your weight forward. Now lift your legs, one at a time, and then lift the head, and fly!
You may feel like a teeter-totter at first as you try to find a balance between the pelvis and legs and the chest and head. Keep your inner thighs, outer hips, and pelvic floor actively engaged. Breathe and hold, lengthening through the crown of the head and out through the legs and feet, lifting up off your arms. To release, lower your feet and knees to the floor and sit back on your heels. Shake out your wrists and note the flush of energy through the body.
Mayurasana is typically more difficult for women, whose center of gravity is lower than men. Anyone with heavy legs and pelvis and short arms will have to work much harder to lift the lower body, since the center of gravity will not be over the elbows. One way to lighten the load is to fold the legs into padmasana (lotus pose) to bring more of the weight of the lower body closer to the elbows. (If padmasana is not accessible for you, try the pose with your knees bent, feet together, and knees out to the side as in baddha konasana.) If you don’t get off the floor, don’t worry. Just by making the effort you will begin to experience the benefits of the pose.