Release the Beast: The Origins and Practice of Simhasana
“Eighty-four asanas were taught by the Lord of Yogis, Shiva. Of those, I shall describe four which are the quintessence.” Thus speaks Svatmarama in verse 33 of chapter 1 of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika—the classical Sanskrit text on hatha yoga. He goes on, “Siddhasana, padmasana, simhasana, and bhadrasana: these four are most excellent.”
Out of all 84 postures, the four most excellent are sitting postures?! Would your list match Svatmarama’s? What happened to the headstand, the shoulderstand, downward facing dog, the peacock, or a dozen of the other highly touted postures? If meditative postures are at the top of your list, it makes sense that siddhasana (the pose of perfection) and padmasana (the lotus pose) would be among the top four, but why simhasana (the lion pose), or bhadrasana (also known as the butterfly pose or baddha konasana)? Why would Svatmarama consider these so important?
Out of all 84 postures, the four most excellent are sitting postures?!
The Secret of the Sitting Postures
Obviously there must be more to the sitting postures than meets the eye. After all, they’re not very impressive at first glance—there’s no sweat, no burning of fat, no splendid display of strength, no flashy show of flexibility—in short, there’s no action. According to the standards of many contemporary yoga classes, they’re boring. So what is going on? Focusing on simhasana, we can take a clue from what Svatmarama says in verse 52: “This is simhasana, held in great esteem by the highest yogis. This most excellent asana facilitates the three bandhas.” Elsewhere he comments that the bandhas follow mastery of the sitting postures and that mastery of the sitting postures destroys disease, confers yogic powers, and generally makes other asanas unnecessary. From this we can conclude that the bandhas are the key to the importance of the sitting postures.
Bandha means “lock” in Sanskrit. The bandhas are used to direct the pranic energy in the body and can be practiced in many asanas. But they are particularly useful in the sitting postures and in the practice of pranayama. They are not introduced until the rudiments of asana have been mastered, as they require a measure of awareness and control the beginning student hasn’t yet achieved.
The three main bandhas mentioned by Svatmarama are mulabandha, the root lock, uddiyana bandha (literally, upward-flying lock), and jalandhara bandha, the chin lock. Mulabandha serves to stop the flow of energy from going downward through the gates in the pelvic floor, directing it upward instead. Sitting with the spine straight on a firm surface and the position of the feet and legs in one of the four sitting postures extolled by Svatmarama encourages mulabandha.
In uddiyana bandha, the abdominal muscles and diaphragm are drawn in and up, directing the energy from the abdomen upward. The chin lock, which is done by simply pressing the chin toward the throat, controls the energy in the throat and head. All of these locks can be applied in the sitting postures. In addition, sitting on the feet puts pressure on points that are connected to the internal organs—such as the liver, spleen, and reproductive organs—which are then stimulated, adjusted, and balanced.
So in general, the sitting postures work on prana—the energy that animates the body and around which the body takes shape. Thus these postures become the foundation for finding the gateways from the physical body to the energy body and learning to control the flow of prana. When the sitting postures are correctly performed, prana is controlled in the major nadis (channels of energy). This affects the nervous system and the ductless glands, allowing us to regulate functions of the body that are normally out of our control. In this way, diseases are destroyed and the latent spiritual energy that can lead us into higher states of consciousness is harnessed.
So in general, the sitting postures work on prana—the energy that animates the body and around which the body takes shape.
This is the purpose of all hatha yoga practices: cleansing and purifying the body and activating the subtle energy. If we can use the sitting postures to control prana, the purpose of hatha is accomplished. Therefore, the value of simhasana resides in the way in which it facilitates the control of prana. Let’s look at how this pose is done.
The Basics of Simhasana and Some Variations
The version of the lion described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a bit more subtle than the version that most of us practice. It is done by crossing the ankles under the body so that the left ankle is under the right buttock on the right side of the perineum, and the right ankle is under the left buttock on the left side of the perineum. Sitting on your heels with your ankles crossed, stretch the arms out straight, extending the hands and fingers, and place the palms on the knees. The torso is leaning forward slightly, but the back is straight and the weight is distributed through the arms. Next bring the chin toward the chest and open the mouth wide. Concentrate the gaze on the tip of the nose and mentally envision the bridge where the nostrils meet the lip.
Now for the more subtle aspects of the pose. Tense the whole body and bring it slightly forward. The energy from the lower body is activated and brought up, somewhat in the manner of agni sara, a pranayama practice designed to stimulate the solar plexus. Beginning with mulabandha, contract the lower body. The position of the feet encourages mulabandha and the weight and pressure of the body on the heels at the perineum creates heat, which rises. The upward movement continues as the diaphragm and abdomen contract with the exhalation.
This contraction, in concert with the straight spine and forward lean of the torso, becomes uddiyana bandha. The energy in the throat and face is controlled with jalandhara bandha as the chin comes in and down toward the chest with the mouth open wide. The eyes help direct the mind and awareness. When focused on the nose, they bring mental energy to two of the most important nadis: ida and pingala, which run the length of the spine on the left and right sides, respectively.
The movement of energy in the version of simhasana described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is subtle. The essence of the lion pose is more readily apparent to us in another, more commonly taught version. In this version, the breath is expelled forcefully and audibly while the body moves forward. The whole
body is tensed and thrust slightly forward and up off the heels as you exhale, stick the tongue out, and roar with the breath deep in the throat. The Pradipika doesn’t mention sticking out the tongue or roaring, but the posture is often taught with the tongue extended as far down the chin as possible and with a breathy exhalation, which sounds and feels like an extreme variation of ujjayi breath.
The force of the exhalation is increased by the mulabandha and the uddiyana bandha, bringing blood, energy, pressure, and sound into the neck, throat, and head. The body is tense, and the breath is held on the exhalation for a few moments, during which it is easier to experience the bandhas. What is deeply held in the lower body is pushed up and out and vocalized. The body is then relaxed with the inhalation and returns to a resting position on the heels.
In another variation from the Pradipika version, the eyes are rolled up and in, toward the center between the eyebrows, instead of being focused on the tip of the nose. When the eyes are focused between the eyebrows they direct energy up to the ajna chakra, the command center and gateway to realms beyond the physical.
Open the mouth, thrust out the tongue with a roar, and gaze at the point between the eyebrows or at the tip of the nose.
You may also have learned simhasana from a different sitting posture. It is commonly taught from vajrasana, the thunderbolt pose. This entails sitting on the heels with the top of the feet on the floor and the buttocks resting on the heels. Spread the fingers and place the hands on the knees, as described above. Keeping the head, neck, and trunk aligned while exhaling, perform the posture by applying mulabandha and uddiyana bandha, lifting the body slightly off the heels, and leaning forward as you straighten the arms, with the hands on the knees. Open the mouth, thrust out the tongue with a roar, and gaze at the point between the eyebrows or at the tip of the nose.
Simhasana in the Lotus Pose
The lion is also performed in padmasana (the lotus posture). As you will recall, padmasana was also at the top of Svatmarama’s list, so this version combines two of the four “most excellent” postures. To practice it, sit in padmasana and place the palms on the floor in front of you with your fingers pointed straight forward. Lift the body on the exhalation and stand on the knees and hands, pushing the pelvis forward and down as you stick out the tongue and roar. Focus the eyes either on the tip of the nose or between the eyebrows and apply the bandhas. This version combines the benefits of simhasana with the benefits of padmasana. These include adjusting the sacrum and lower back and increasing the circulation to the abdomen. The tightly locked legs direct energy upward.
As you can see, simhasana is relatively simple from the perspective of the external technique, especially if you use the more active version rather than the subtler version given in the Pradipika, which enables you to avoid sitting on the crossed ankles, which many people find painful. This external simplicity is the beauty of the pose because it allows us to work more deeply from within, collecting and directing our power.
The Roar of the Lion
The stimulation of energy at the throat activates the prana in the kurma nadi, which runs from the muladhara region to the hollow of the throat. The kurma nadi is related to stability. When it is clear and energy moves freely through it, physical, emotional, and mental stability results. As the roar of the lion sweeps through the kurma nadi, the obstacles to a clear, calm, and collected body and mind are shattered. When we become centered in our physical bodies, our minds are quieted because anger, fear, confusion, sloth, and the other negative emotions that obscure access to the inner realm are tamed. Thus, simhasana is a way of externalizing pent-up emotions, which tend to block the flow of prana and have a destabilizing effect on our entire being.
On the purely physical level the circulation is increased in the vocal cords, throat region, and tongue, so the posture corrects bad breath, clears the throat, and improves the quality of the voice. It enhances the capacity and ability for expression, on the physical as well as emotional levels.
In the scriptures, the lion is the vehicle of Durga, a powerful goddess in Indian cosmology; the man-lion is one of the forms of Lord Vishnu.
Perhaps simhasana can be better understood through the medium of stories from the scriptures than by attempting to force what is essentially subtle and intuitive into a logical description of the technical aspects of the pose. In the scriptures, the lion is the vehicle of Durga, a powerful goddess in Indian cosmology; the man-lion is one of the forms of Lord Vishnu. Let us see why.
The Devi’s Vehicle
There once lived a great demon in the form of a buffalo named Mahishasura. Even though he was blinded by ignorance and bloated with egoism, the passions of the lower mind, and material desires, he grew very powerful. None could defeat him. He cast even Indra, the Lord of Heaven, out of his realm to wander homeless on the earth. The forces of darkness lay deep over the world.
Seeing this, the devas gathered. With full determination, each issued forth a radiance which combined into a single Divine force, the primordial shakti in the form of the Devi herself. To this mighty ten-armed Devi, each god gave his most formidable weapon, the symbol of all his powers. In this spirit, the mountain king Himavat gave her his lion. So it came to pass that the Devi rode to do battle with Mahishasura and his legions on the back of the lord of all beasts.
“The lion she rode shook his mane in anger and ran amongst the asuras (demonic forces) like fire through a forest,” recounts the Devi Mahatmaya. Shaking his mane and making a great sound, it seemed as though the lion sucked the very breath from the bodies of the enemies of the devas. Borne by her lion, and with her ten arms flailing weapons like the blades of a windmill in a hurricane, the Devi sent the heads and limbs of the asuras flying, although her face showed no signs of perturbance. After a fierce and bloody battle, the Devi defeated the mighty Mahishasura and his demon armies, and the devas sang the Devi’s praises.
In this story, the lion is the power of raw emotion in service of the higher goals of life. Far from being suppressed or denied, this force of emotion is channeled into constructive use by the higher aspects of mind—that part of us which is divine. When the lion tosses one of the demons up in the air and kills him with a swipe of his paw, the dark, demonic force—the animal nature—is destroyed. But the story goes on to tell how the demon was transformed by the mere touch of the lion’s claw, even as he was vanquished. Similarly, while performing this posture—as you allow the energies of your prana and mind to flow through your body by letting the eyes roll up, the tongue come out, and the hands extend, culminating in a roar—you will experience the release of beastly forces. Once the beast within is released and you relax back on your heels, the pure forces of divinity rush in to fill the vacuum.
Narasimha, the Man-Lion
In a story from the Puranas, Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, took the form of Narasimha, the man-lion, to destroy the demon Hiranyakashipu. The name Hiranyakashipu means “shining like molten gold,” but his misdeeds had obscured his radiance so completely that only his destructive aspect was manifest. He no longer recognized or appreciated the Divine.
Hiranyakashipu represents the tamasic aspect of the universe and of ourselves. The interplay of the three gunas, or modes of energy—tamas, rajas, and sattva—is the essence of primordial nature. All aspects of the universe have these three qualities in varying degrees. Tamas is the force of stability, inertia, ignorance; the veiling power of darkness and downward movement. Rajas is the principle of activity, of movement, of change, agitation, restlessness. Sattva is the principle of truth, of essence, of purity, light, and upward movement. The principle of sattva in this story is represented by Hiranyakashipu’s son, Prahlada. “Prahlada” means “delight, joy.”
Hiranyakashipu was feared and hated, but no one could do much to stop him because, by his constant self-effort (tapas), he had earned a boon from Brahma, the creative force of the universe: he could not be killed in day or at night, inside or outside, or by man or beast. He was contemptuous of his son’s devotion to Vishnu and tried to kill him on many occasions, but Prahlada was always saved by the purity of his devotion. Finally, Vishnu circumvented the boon by appearing at dusk in the form of a fierce man-lion, Narasimha, and destroyed Hiranyakashipu on the threshold of his own palace. Here again, the rajasic power of emotion—anger—is used to destroy the force of darkness.
He was contemptuous of his son’s devotion to Vishnu and tried to kill him on many occasions, but Prahlada was always saved by the purity of his devotion.
But this story, which is really one of transformation, is completed only when Prahlada, the sattvic force of delight, is rewarded. That is why highly accomplished yogis recommend the practice of a specific pranayama technique, bhastrika, immediately after simhasana so that the aspirant can derive full benefit from the removal of the tamasic forces. Bhastrika, which is also called the bellows breath, is a pranayama practice which generates fire at the navel center. Due to the mulabandha, which is essential to this practice, energy moves upward along the spinal column to the brain center. If you want to further experience the joy of transcending the tamasic forces and to rejoice in the manifestation of the sattvic forces, the yogis advise spending a few minutes in meditation immediately after completing the practice of bhastrika.
Working with the Forces Within
The characters of these stories live within each of us. It is there that the daily battle of transforming ourselves into our divine selves is waged. Within each of us lives a lion who can become the vehicle that carries us to victory or the force that destroys the power of darkness. The practice of yoga and the most excellent of asanas, simhasana, is the way to harness this magnificent beast.
For over 20 years Sandra Anderson has shared her extensive experience in yoga theory and practice with students from all over the world. A senior faculty member and resident at the Himalayan Institute, her teaching reflects access to the living oral tradition, and the embodied experience of 30 years of dedicated practice. With a background in the natural sciences and interest in classical Sanskrit, along with frequent pilgrimages to India, Sandy has a rare capacity to eloquently convey the... Read more>>