The Mythology Behind Bharadvajasana (Sage’s Twist)

June 23, 2016    BY Zo Newell

Bharadvaja was a rishi, an ancient sage—one of the famous Seven Sages of Vedic times, who are immortalized in the constellation known in India as the Sapta Rishis and in Western astronomy as the Seven Sisters. The epic Ramayana tells us that when Lord Rama (the hero of the Ramayana and an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the preserver) entered into exile, he found refuge in the ashrams of several sages. The first of these sages was Bharadvaja, who was living in the forest practicing austerities, and surrounded by his students.

As Rama, his wife Sita, and his brother Lakshman approached Bharadvaja’s compound, the sage was preparing to perform the daily rituals of arghya and padya, washing the hands and feet of one’s chosen deity.

On the outskirts of the ashram, Rama hailed one of Bharadvaja’s students. “Please tell your honored teacher that Rama, son of Dasaratha, is waiting at the forest’s edge.”  

The excited student ran inside. “Master, someone who looks like a divinity has come! He says he is Rama.”  

With the offering implements in his hands, Bharadvaja hastened to meet Rama and to welcome him inside.

“Rama,” he exclaimed, “I have been practicing austerities all these years in the hope of seeing the Self, and now you have come! I know you; I’ve meditated on you all my life. You are Paramatman—the highest of the high in human form, the—I don’t even know what to call you! All I know is that I am blessed to meet you, my Lord, my Lord.” And he fell at Rama’s feet, dropping his basins and vessels of water.

“Get up, Bharadvaja,” said Rama kindly. He helped the older man to stand, and he embraced him. “You are a sage, and we are wanderers in the forest: rulers without a kingdom. Please give us shelter in your ashram; let us rest and refresh ourselves before we continue on our journey.”

“Of course, Lord, you and your companions are welcome to stay here as long as you like.”

Gesturing toward the spilled water and scattered vessels that Bharadvaja had dropped in his eagerness, Rama smiled and said, “We interrupted your practice. I am so sorry. May we participate now?”

And Bharadvaja, who every day washed the feet and hands of the supreme Lord in his imagination, now washed the dusty, brown, muscular feet of that very Lord in human form. And he was supremely happy.

Adding Visualization to Your Practice

Bharadvaja visualized washing Rama's feet and hands every day as part of his devotions. He pictured it in detail, with devotion, every day, for a long time, and in his old age, the object of his devotion manifested. This is exactly how theYoga Sutra tells us we should practice. In Yoga Sutra 1.13, Patanjali speaks of practice (abhyasa) as choosing actions that lead to a stable, tranquil state (stithau), and doing those actions for a long time, without a break, and with sincere devotion. (I.14).

You may not have a devotional practice like Bharadvaja's, but visualization can still be a powerful ally in your asana practice. Let's say you are afraid to kick up into a full handstand. You want to do it, you understand the principles, but your body simply will not cooperate. Visualization can help. Mentally rehearse the movements you want to do, imagining the muscles involved, how you will breathe, and how it will feel when both feet sail up and touch the wall. Picture this every day, patiently, in detail, without pressure. One day, when you approach the pose as usual, your body will realize, “We know how to do this!” and up it will go. And you, too, will feel supremely happy.

The Pose

The family of poses named for Bharadvaja are all twists. There are several variations on bharadvajasana, but here I will present one seated version and one reclining version.

As you practice the following asanas named for Bharadvaja, you may wish to use visualization to encourage your own tranquil state.

Picture your spine as a washcloth held by two huge, benevolent hands. The stress and exhaustion in your body are the soapy water in the washcloth. As you exhale, imagine the hands “wringing” the washcloth of your spine to rid it of soapy water; as you inhale, imagine your breath rinsing the washcloth with clean, fresh water.

Seated Bharadvajasana I

Sit on the floor with your legs stretched straight out in front of you in dandasana (staff pose) and your arms at your sides, palms on the floor by your hips. Press down through your arms to help you sit tall. Lift your ribs up as you lengthen your spine and ground your sit bones.

Exhaling, lean on your right hand, bend your knees, and move your legs back and to your left side until both feet rest on the floor beside your left hip. Rest your top foot in the arch of your bottom foot. If this feels too awkward, try resting your top ankle in the arch of your bottom foot.

Reach your left sit bone toward the floor; your weight will be more on the right sit bone in this position.

Exhaling, turn your navel and trunk to the right. Bring your left arm across your body. Slip your left hand under your right knee, palm facing down. (If you have trouble getting your left hand under your knee, take the back of the left hand to the outside of the right knee, palm facing out.)

Extend your right arm to shoulder height. On an exhale, rotate the arm inwardly, bring it behind you, and hold your upper left arm. If your shoulders are not yet flexible enough to do that, bring your right hand to the floor behind you, as close to your right hip as possible; press your hand or fingertips into the floor, and lift your chest.

Turn your head to the right and gaze over your right shoulder. Stay for several breaths—up to a minute. Then, on an inhale, untwist, return to dandasana, and repeat on the second side.

Supta (Reclining) Bharadvajasana

Sit on the floor, legs extended in staff pose. Place a bolster at a right angle to your right hip. Exhaling, bend your knees and bring your bent legs to rest by your left hip.  

Bring your right hand to the middle of the bolster. Exhaling, slide your arm down the midline of the bolster, lengthening your spine and lifting your lower ribs. You will be in a side bend, nearly lying on your side on the bolster. These actions help to extend the spine in preparation for the twist. Bring your right hand to the floor under your right shoulder, keeping your body low. Bring your left hand to the floor under your left shoulder. Now, press into both hands and lift your torso.

Exhaling, press more into your right hand, bending your elbow as you turn your navel toward the bolster. Then Place your forearms alongside the bolster, palms down. Then, if you like, slip both forearms under the bolster, palms up, as if you were hugging the bolster to your chest. You may enjoy a “grounding” sensation of the bolster’s weight on your arms and hands. If not, just keep your arms beside the bolster as they were. You can turn your head to look over your right shoulder (away from your knees), or if this strains your neck, keep your head facing in the direction of your knees.   

Check the relationship of your shoulders to your ears. If your shoulders are up near your ears, add more height: place an additional blanket on top of the full length of the bolster, and lie down again; your upper arm bones will now be at nearly a right angle to the floor, creating space between the shoulders and the ears. You want to be high enough that you don’t feel propped up on your elbows; let the elbows rest very lightly on the floor. The height of your props here is a matter of your body’s proportions: People with long upper arm bones will need more height than people with shorter upper arm bones.

Once you have established the correct support for you, release your body into the pose. Give your full weight to the bolster’s support. Inhale and exhale through your nose, visualizing the in-breath moving down your spine to the tailbone and the out-breath moving up the spine and out through the crown of the head. Stay in the pose for at least three minutes—five to ten is even better—before repeating on the second side. As you stay, allow the breath to carry you deeper and deeper into the support of the props.

#poses Photography: Crystal Ketterhagen

Zo Newell
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>>

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