The Mythology Behind Makarasana (Crocodile Pose)
The renowned Indian epic Ramayana tells how Queen Sita, wife of Lord Rama, was kidnapped by the demon Ravana and imprisoned on the island of Lanka. Hanuman, the monkey-superhero, helped Rama rescue her, but a great battle ensued. Toward the battle's end, Rama's brother Lakshman lay mortally wounded. Only a rare herb from the Himalayas could save him. Hanuman, with his fantastic superpowers, flew north, uprooted the mountain where the herb grew, and sped back to Lanka. On the way back, however, he paused to cool himself and drink from a sparkling lake.
He instantly assumed an enormous size, bursting the crocodile's body and killing it to free himself.
Now, on the shores of this lake lived an evil demon, a relative of Ravana's, who had poisoned its waters. When Hanuman plunged in, before he could drink, a crocodile caught him by the foot, pulled him under the water, and swallowed him, along with the mountain! Fortunately, Hanuman's powers included the power to change his size and shape. He instantly assumed an enormous size, bursting the crocodile's body and killing it to free himself. As he rose from the water, he beheld an exquisite apsara, a celestial nymph, hovering over the crocodile's corpse. “Son of the Wind,” she said to Hanuman, “I am the grateful nymph Dhyanamalini. Long ago, Ravana cursed me to be in crocodile form until I should meet the servant of Rama. When I caught hold of your feet, the curse was lifted. Now I am free!” She explained that Ravana, foreseeing the events of battle, had left his demon relative Kalanemi to poison the lake and kill Hanuman on his return to Lanka. As Dhyanamalini flew home to heaven, Hanuman killed the demon, restored the lake's purity, slaked his thirst, and sped on his own way to heal Lakshman.
In Indian tradition, the makara is a fabulous beast, part crocodile, part elephant, sometimes part stag or peacock. It is the vehicle of the river goddess Ganga. Its name endures, transformed into magar in modern Hindi, as the name of the ordinary crocodile. It is also incorporated in the name of the yoga asana makarasana, or “crocodile pose.” This pose is wonderful for learning diaphragmatic breathing and for relaxing the entire nervous system.
- Lie on your stomach.
- Place your feet slightly more than hip-width apart, with your toes pointing inward and heels outward. This placement releases tension from the low back and creates a sense of spaciousness in the back lungs and diaphragm.
- Place your elbows in line with your shoulders; you can adjust the width for comfort. Fold your arms in front of you, either with the top palm stacked on the back of the bottom hand or with your forearms stacked.
- Press your elbows into the floor and drag your lower ribs forward, creating length in the side waist. Rest your belly, floating ribs on the floor.
- Rest your head on your folded arms. Relax. If you need more height under your head, use a folded blanket or bolster; there should be no tension in your neck.
- Soften the root of your tongue, your throat, and your belly. Inhale and exhale as though you could breathe all the way down to your tailbone.
- Snuggle your front body into the floor like a crocodile luxuriating in the mud. Breathe. Observe your breath and its movement in your body. Be in no hurry to go anywhere. Notice, under the skin, the hard bony structure of your skull and ribs; feel down past the bone to the soft brain tissue and organs that the hardness protects. Notice the softness of your belly in between the hardness of the bottom front ribs and the hip bones.
The greatest benefits of this pose, which builds awareness and comfort rather than strength or agility, include the relief of stress and low back pain, the gentle stretching of the paraspinal muscles, and the strengthening the diaphragm. Additionally, the shape of makarasana is optimal for cultivating greater breath awareness. Contraindications include pregnancy or any condition in which abdominal pressure is uncomfortable.
The makar is associated with the second, or svadisthana, chakra. Located just above the tailbone, the svadisthana chakra is associated with the water element, with the unconscious, and with deeply held emotion. Svadisthana chakra is the seat of dormant samskaras (habit patterns, impressions; see Yoga Sutra 4.9-12) whose unconscious hold must be released in order for you to realize your full potential.
When you begin to make one unconscious element conscious, others follow.
In many healing rituals, you enter the water for renewal and purification, but in the water's depths you may encounter your personal demons. Just as a crocodile drags its prey under the water, your unconscious mind and its samskaras can grab you from below. Sometimes when people begin a breathing practice, they find things “coming up” from their unconscious in the form of dreams, memories, and long-forgotten emotions. This is because the breathing process is automatic, usually done unconsciously, and when you begin to make one unconscious element conscious, others follow. This is part of the healing process; don't be deterred by what comes up. Stay with the practice, take refuge in the practice, and it will carry you through.
Hanuman saves himself by becoming bigger than the crocodile and bursting its hold. Spiritually, this could mean transcending your limits by aligning your consciousness with a higher, sacred power. It is interesting that, in our story, Hanuman is flying on a healing mission when he pauses, comes down to earth, and goes to the water for refreshment; something in the water threatens to drag him under, but he overcomes it and continues his journey (which, by the way, ends successfully). In psychological terms, this resembles what happens when a person in a helping/healing role begins to be overextended, stops to ground herself, finds herself confronted by some unprocessed personal issues, and must deal with those before returning to the task of healing others.
Crocodiles symbolize the union of opposites. They have hard backs and soft bellies. Mother crocodiles carry their babies very gently in their powerful jaws, but they can also use those jaws to crush. Crocodiles represent an equal balance between water and earth: they live in both elements and go easily from one to the other. They see (crocodiles have keen night vision) but frequently remain unseen, due to their ability to submerge in the water and remain still in the mud, looking like logs—until they move.
Jungian psychologist Marion Woodman associates the crocodile with dark mother goddesses such as Kali, who rules over both death and transformation, and who, like a crocodile, is both a tender protective mother and the master of sudden fury.
What is your experience of the “dark mother,” with her messages of grief and sudden loss, renewal and love?
As you breathe, remember a time when something unexpected “grabbed you from below.” How did you break its grip and restore balance in your life or emotions? What is your experience of the “dark mother,” with her messages of grief and sudden loss, renewal and love? As a healer, when have you interrupted your helping journey in order to confront and resolve personal issues of your own?
B. K. S. Iyengar once said that the study of asana is not about mastering posture, but about using posture to understand and transform yourself. Makarasana is physically a simple pose, but it can lead you to a deeper understanding of your unconscious processes and, through that understanding, to transformation.
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>>