The Mythology Behind Matsyasana (Fish Pose)
A long, long time ago, it so happened that Brahma the creator fell asleep, causing a pralaya, a period of cosmic dissolution. Rain began to fall, and the water began to rise. In the chaos, a demon named Hayagreeva stole and made off with the four Vedas, which contained all the world's sacred wisdom.
This time he took the form of a matsya (fish).
From time to time, as you may already be aware, when things begin to fall apart and dharma—cosmic order—is threatened, Vishnu the preserver takes form in the world to save the creation and its creatures. His forms are known as avatar, meaning “descent.” The form that he takes depends on the needs of the time. This time he took the form of a matsya (fish).
The Story of Matsyavatar
Good King Satyavrat was bathing in a river when a tiny fish swam into his cupped hands and cried, “Majesty, protect me!” So the king put the fish in his kamandalu, a coconut shell bowl, and took her home. By the next morning she had grown to fill the bowl. The king produced a larger bowl, and then successively larger bowls, and ponds, and lakes, but the fish rapidly outgrew every container. At last the king decided to take her to the sea. “Please don't put me in a sea where there are monsters!” said the fish.
By now it was clear that this was no ordinary fish. Satyavrat folded his hands and begged the fish to reveal her true form, and to explain what was really happening here. Immediately, Lord Vishnu stood before him. He told Satyavrat that in seven days, the entire world would be flooded. “But I will send a boat for you,” said the Lord, “and you will help me to rebuild the world. During the next seven days you must gather every kind of seed and plant that grows on earth, and the subtle bodies of every species of creature. When I arrive, put all of these into the boat. Use Vasuki, the cosmic serpent, as a rope to tether the boat to the fin on my head, and I will carry you safely over the flood.”
So at the appointed time, Satyavrat loaded the boat with every kind of seed and medicinal plant, and with the subtle forms of every living creature. In the meantime, Lord Vishnu—or, as we should probably call him by now, Matsyavatar, Vishnu’s descent in fish form—had rescued the Vedas from Hayagreeva's clutches and stowed them safely with the world-saving cargo. As they sailed, Matsyavatar spoke divine wisdom to Satyavrat, teaching him all about the yogas of jnana (wisdom), bhakti (devotion), and karma (action). Today, his discourse is known as the Matsya Purana. They sailed over ages and eons, until Brahma awoke. A shining new world emerged then from the ocean, and Satyavrat became the Manu—the lawgiver, ruler, and father—of the creatures of that new age.
(People with back or neck injuries should consult an experienced teacher about modifications using a block or folded blanket for support, or avoid this pose. If you have migraines, or high or low blood pressure, proceed with caution.)
Sit in dandasana (staff pose), legs straight out in front of you. Press your hands (or fingertips) into the floor at your sides. Broaden your collarbones and lift your chest. Point your elbows back; if your arms are long enough, bend your elbows back as you draw the bottom tips of your shoulder blades in and continue to widen your collarbones.
Now move your hands back an inch or so. Roll your shoulders back, point your elbows back, bend your elbows, and lift your chest. Exhale from the point between the bottom tips of your shoulder blades to the base of your skull. Lift and open the back of your heart. Lengthen that upper part of your spine, and notice if any tension has begun to form in your neck or at the base of your skull. If so, release it. Keep the back of your neck long (avoid lifting your chin and shortening it).
Lift and open the back of your heart.
Now, lie on your back, knees bent. Lift your hips and bring your hands under your buttocks, palms down. Straighten your legs. (If this strains your back, keep them bent.) Roll your shoulders back, and press your forearms into the floor. Draw the shoulder-blade tips in toward your front body, and use that action to lift your chest.
Continue to lengthen your spine from between the shoulder blades to the base of your skull. Keep lifting the chest and lengthening the back body to bring your head back until it just touches the floor. Depending on how high your chest is, either the crown or the back of your head will approach the floor. Don't shorten or “crunch” the back of your neck in an effort to get it down. All weight should be on your forearms and elbows, not your skull! Your head should float free, with your hair just grazing the floor. Imagine it waving gently like seaweed. Relax your neck and face.
Keep pressing your forearms down and lifting the tips of your shoulder blades up toward your heart to support the lift of your breastbone. Draw your kidneys and vertebral column in toward the front body, without gripping your back muscles or digging the rim of your sacrum into your back. Draw the tops of your thighbones down. Intend your tailbone toward your heels. Let go of all muscular action that is not directly involved with maintaining the shape of the asana: Soften your eyes, jaw, and throat. Imagine yourself floating, supported by the living water beneath you. Stay for as long as you are comfortable, then lower your chest and head to the floor, remove your hands from underneath, and roll slowly to a seated position.
Soften your eyes, jaw, and throat. Imagine yourself floating, supported by the living water beneath you.
Benefits of matsyasana include: opening the chest, stretching the intercostal muscles between the ribs, improving circulation to the breasts and lungs, stimulating the liver and kidneys, and relieving tension in the neck and shoulders.
Clearly, this story is a cousin to the Biblical story of Noah and the flood. The world is going to be destroyed by water, and one righteous human being must rescue the essentials for rebuilding civilization. It is interesting and somewhat puzzling that there is no “Mrs. Noah” in this story, and no “two of each kind." Instead, what is important is saving the Vedas, the sum total of human and divine wisdom; saving seeds for agriculture; and preserving the subtle bodies of every species of living creature for future rebirth. In Satyavrat's position, what would you choose to save?
In the beginning of the story, Satyavrat spontaneously does a good deed by saving the tiny fish. By the end, it is revealed that the tiny fish is Lord Vishnu, the savior of all humanity. Have you ever performed a seemingly small service for someone, only to discover that that act had far-reaching positive consequences for more than just that person?
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>>