The Mythology Behind Markatasana (Monkey Pose Twist)

August 13, 2015    BY Zo Newell

Markatasana is one of several poses whose names evoke the heroic monkey people of the epic Ramayana. Many yoga students are familiar with hanumanasana (splits), and the lunge variations anjaneyasana and vanarasana, named for Hanuman, his mother Anjana, and their tribe, the Vanar people. (An interesting aside: Although the Vanars are traditionally depicted as human-faced monkeys, many modern scholars believe they were really indigenous forest people who used a monkey totem.) While these poses involve strong hip-opening and backbending actions, their modest, and perhaps lesser-known relative, markatasana, is a simple reclining twist that emphasizes relaxation and intentional breathing.

Markat, in Sanskrit, just means “monkey.” Thirteen or more species of monkeys inhabit the Indian subcontinent. In honor of Hanuman and his people, all monkeys in India enjoy protected status. No matter how annoying their “monkeyshines” (such as eating fibre optic cables, stealing unsecured food, and terrorizing tourists) may be, they cannot be killed or harmed, only scared away or distracted. Fortunately, monkeys are easily distracted! Most meditators are familiar with the term “monkey mind,” which is often used to describe the mind's tendency to leap from one object to the next.

Rather than trying to stop the mind's restless tendencies, this practice gives it several things to focus on at once.

It may seem counterintuitive, then, to present “monkey pose” as a focused (though moving) meditative practice; but when you try it, you will see how mindful movement and breath awareness cooperate to produce a sense of anchoring the mind to the breath. Rather than trying to stop the mind's restless tendencies, this practice gives it several things to focus on at once, and the result is synergistic: focus in the midst of movement.

Benefits

The twisting movements of this pose gently stretch the entire spine and massage the internal organs, benefiting digestion and promoting circulation. The rhythmic breathing and movement help to regulate breath and heart rate, making this an excellent pose for reducing stress.

The Pose

Lie on your back with your arms extended to the sides shoulder-height or slightly below, palms up.

On an exhale, bend your knees and draw your heels close to your buttocks, soles of the feet on the floor.

Inhale and exhale. Notice the length of your in-breath and out-breath. Make them equal.

Next, inhale for whatever your baseline count is, and do nothing. Then, exhale for the same count as you drop your knees to the right and turn your head to the left. Inhale, return to the center, feet flat, and gaze toward the ceiling. Exhaling, drop the knees to the left and turn the head right. Inhale back to the center.

To make things more interesting: Time the movement of your head and knees so that, as your knees reach the floor, your head finishes turning as far it will go. Use one long, smooth exhalation to complete the twist. Remain in the twist for a breath or two; then, on the in-breath, return to the center, with the soles of the feet coming fully onto the floor at the same time that your nose comes to face the ceiling. Stay for a breath or two, then repeat to the left.

To make things even more interesting try this: Maintain a smooth, unbroken flow of movement and breath as you move from center into the twist, back to center, to the other side, and back to center again. Then, after two or three repetitions, begin to lengthen the exhalation only. If you began with an equal count of four, continue inhaling for four, but make your next exhalation five counts. Continue moving from side to side as you lengthen the exhalation: in for four at the center, out for five to the right; in for four at the center, out for five to the left; in for four at the center, out for six to the right...and so on, up to an exhalation of eight to the right, four at the center, eight to the left. (Don't let your exhalation become more than twice as long as the inhalation.) Finally, return to center and release this breathing pattern. Stay for a few normal breaths, then roll to the side and sit up.

The aim here is to maintain an even, steady flow of breath and movement, and in doing so, to captivate your mind's wandering tendencies.

Points for Practice

Keep your shoulders relaxed. Extend both arms fully along the floor. Experience the length of each arm, from the inner edge of your shoulder blade to the tip of your longest finger. Where do you feel the most stretch? 

Try different foot positions. You can stack your feet so the inner edge of the upper foot rests on the inner edge of the lower foot when you are fully twisted. To start, have your feet flat on the floor, side by side; as you roll to the right, let your left foot leave the floor and rest on the right foot. Or, instead of stacking them, you can roll onto the edges of your feet so the big-toe side of the top foot and the little-toe side of the bottom foot rest on the floor. Start with the feet together; they will separate slightly as you roll. Notice the difference between stacking the feet and keeping them both on the floor as you twist. (For me, keeping both feet on the floor noticeably increases the stretch in my front thighs.) Finally, try taking your feet mat-width apart and repeat.

Notice how the position of your feet directs the twist into the natural curves of your spine. Feet together: the twisting sensation feels most prominent in your lumbar spine (lower back). Feet hip-width moves the twisting action into the mid-thoracic spine (middle back). Feet mat-width moves the twist into the upper back, behind your chest. What about your neck spine? Does it move more easily when the feet are together, or apart?

Notice how the position of your feet directs the twist into the natural curves of your spine.

Since this is “monkey pose,” what about your tail? As you twist on the exhalation, imagine a long supple tail, an extension of your spine, moving toward your knees. As you return to the center on the in-breath, keep your imaginary tail aligned with the rest of your spine. This not only encourages your lower back to lengthen and protects it from “crunching” as you twist, but it provides an energetic sense of expansion throughout the back of the body, and throughout the breath as well. 

Reflection

In the late-medieval Vaishnava tradition of South India, two approaches to bhakti (devotion) developed. These were known as the Markata (monkey) and Marjara (cat) nyayas (theories).

Markata nyaya refers to the behavior of a baby monkey, who clings tightly to its mother wherever she goes. The mother monkey's arms are occupied as she leaps from tree to tree; she does not hold on to the baby; but as long as the baby holds firmly to her, it arrives safely.

Marjara nyaya refers to the behavior of kittens, who are likely to wander. The mother cat picks them up by the scruff of the neck and carries them wherever she wants them to be. The kitten is passive; she makes no effort but arrives safely by surrendering to the mother's protective grasp.

In the monkey's case, it is up to the baby to hold on. “Monkey” students or devotees cling firmly to their practice, even under extreme conditions. Even when their grasp threatens to slip, they regain it. They are capable of making great, sustained effort (see Yoga Sutra 1.12-16) over a long time. “Cat” students trust God or the teacher to know what's best for them. Come what may, they adopt the attitude that a higher power has placed them in this position and there must be spiritual value in it, no matter how difficult. They illustrate the principle that Patanjali called ishvara pranidhana, surrender to the Lord (YS 1.23).

Of course, it is rarely all one way or the other: a good guru takes care of their student like a mother cat holding her baby, and a good student clings to their guru and their practice like a baby monkey.

There is effort in your actions. But eventually, something happens: the pose carries you.

In practicing a new pose, at first you are a baby monkey. You hold on to your teacher's detailed instructions—externally rotate the upper arms, internally rotate your elbows, spread your palms, lift your arches, and so on. There is effort in your actions. But eventually, something happens: the pose carries you, like a mother cat. You relax. You discover an intuitive understanding of the pose, its actions, and its effects. In my experience, this does not happen immediately. This is the experience of Yoga Sutra 2.46: Sthira sukha asanam (asana is steady and comfortable), which Patanjali tell us arrives with sustained practice (YS 1.14).

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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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