The Mythology Behind Anantasana (Vishnu’s Couch)
Ananta, a word meaning “unending” or “infinite,” describes what is timeless, beyond birth, growth, death, and all modifications—a limitless state of joy and contentment. This sweet, natural state of ours, beyond the things of the senses, is embodied by the vast mythological serpent, Ananta, whose coils support the universe and who serves as Vishnu's couch when Vishnu rests between avataric incarnations. If you add -asana to Ananta, you have the name of a yoga pose which can help us cultivate this innate sense of contentment, equanimity, and timelessness.
Ananta is one of the upholders of the universe, a being who existed before time began.
Ananta (also known as Adishesha) is an important figure for yogis. Patanjali, the sage who compiled the Yoga Sutra, is said to be Ananta’s incarnation. Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, “Among serpents, I am Ananta.” Ananta is one of the upholders of the universe, a being who existed before time began.
When the devas (bright beings or gods) churned the ocean of milk to create the world, they used Ananta’s body as the rope. He lives forever in Patiala, the otherworld, floating on the ocean, with Vishnu, the preserver, sleeping on his coils. Every seven hundred years or so, or when the creation is really in trouble, his coils stir, Vishnu takes form on earth, and an age ensues; at its end, Vishnu returns to his rest. All the time, while creatures are being born, growing, loving, fighting, dying, Ananta is below, unchanged by all the surface activity—the ultimate witness.
Extending over Patanjali is the cobra's hood, the sign of ultimate protection from all possible evils and difficulties in the world. There are seven serpent hoods forming a divine umbrella protecting both Patanjali and all aspirants who turn to him for guidance. Those seven hoods symbolize his mastery over the five elements—earth, water, fire, air and ether—along with the attainment of moksha and samadhi, liberation and enlightenment.
Ananta in Your Personal World
In your own personal world, your spine is the foundation and support of your physical body and the home of your central nervous system. When danger from the external world threatens, your sympathetic nervous system stirs and arouses you to respond, like Ananta arousing Vishnu to take form and deal with some crisis on earth. It raises your heart and breathing rates, affects digestion, sends blood to the muscles, and prepares you to fight or flee. When the crisis is over, the parasympathetic nervous system calms your body and mind: your heart rate and breath slow, your mind becomes tranquil again, and Vishnu sinks back to rest on Ananta's coils.
Anantasana encourages us to drop deep inside.
Interestingly, the base of the brain, known as the “reptilian brain,” governs our most basic, life-sustaining actions, such as breathing. It has nothing to do with cognition; if you had to think about breathing, you'd die as soon as your attention wandered or you fell asleep. When we respond to the claims and changes of the world of the senses, our attention stands guard in the front (cognitive) brain; from there we figure out what's going on, and what to do about it. We are thus in a constant state of arousal. Anantasana encourages us to drop deep inside and experience our reptilian brain's profound sense of intuitive knowing, stillness, and rest.
- Lie on your left side. Your knees can be slightly bent. Place your right hand on the floor in front of you for balance, and extend your left arm along the floor in line with your left ear. Lengthen the left side of your body, from the hip crease to the armpit. If possible, bring your left armpit to the floor.
- Keeping that armpit descending, bend your left elbow. Place your left hand above your left ear. Keep your elbow in line with your ear as much as possible. Lengthen your triceps.
- Straighten your left leg along the floor, reaching through the heel. Press the left side of your body into the floor, from armpit to heel. Stack the right leg on top of the left.
- Draw your sacrum forward into your body. Ground your left leg from hip to heel. You may be lying down, but this is a balancing pose! (And a good one for your outer hip flexors, too.) Keep the knees straight; create one long line from head to tail. Press the whole left side down to stabilize yourself. Gaze straight ahead; find a stable spot on the floor at eye level on which to rest your gaze.
- Pause and breathe. Exhale to your tailbone. Spread the bones at the base of your skull, like a cobra's hood. Exhale through the crown of your head. Expand your breath and awareness to include the space six inches below your feet and above your head.
- Now, bend your right knee. Externally rotate the right leg and draw the heel up the inside of your left leg. Catch your right big toe with the thumb and first finger of the right hand. Roll your right shoulder down. (Use a strap if you cannot hold your toe and release your shoulder.)
- Exhaling, straighten the right leg, still holding your toe. Snuggle the top of your right arm into the shoulder socket; descend the right shoulder blade. Your leg will tend to angle forward and your right buttock back. Draw your sacrum into your body and reach the right sit bone toward your left heel.
- Soften your tongue. Relax all effort. Breathe down the full length of your body. Let the breath ripple up your spine with a slow, sensuous, snaky movement. Feel the breath supporting your spine and the earth supporting your body. Soften your eyes, and let your brain rest on the base of your skull, at the foundation of your “cobra hood.” Let surface events pass; become one with Ananta, deep and elemental, eternal and unchanging.
- After seven hundred timeless years, exhale long and slow. Maybe hiss a little. Roll to a seated position, adjusting your coils, and repeat on the other side. Yesss.
Patanjali says in Yoga Sutra 2.47, “By relaxing effort and fixing the mind on the infinite [ananta], asana is perfected.” How does it feel to embody this sutra in your practice?
For more on Sutra 2.47, go here.
Zo Newell, Ph.D., ERYT 500, was introduced to yoga as a child by Dr. Rammurti Mishra (Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati). She earned her Ph.D. in religious studies from Vanderbilt University in 2011, with a dissertation on goddess images as a unifying cultural symbol for India's emerging national identity. She is the author of the award-winning book Downward Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis (Himalayan Insitute, 2007). A former hospital chaplain and trauma counselor, Zo was a regular... Read more>>