One of my favorite ways to feel happy and harmonious is to take a walk along the beach with my dog, Leroy. The soft waves slither almost up to our toes, and we have fun chasing them as they slide back into the ocean. Each wave leaves a mark in the sand, and I, too, find myself changed by nature. The vast sky creates a spaciousness in my mind and heart, and the firm sand beneath my feet makes me feel grounded, safe, and confident. I feel a sense of connection with myself, my dog, the whole world—and I know that my longtime yoga practice has played a part in opening me to this vast yet deeply personal experience of nature.
Many people have similar transformative experiences in nature after bringing yoga into their lives. One reason for this profound feeling of connection is that we are all made up of the same elements: earth, wind, fire, water, and space. If we pay close enough attention during our yoga practice, we feel these elements in our own body. We feel the moisture in our mouth and eyes; the earthy weight of our skeleton; the wind of our breath moving in, out, and through us; the warm fire of our digestive organs. And finally, when we get quiet enough, we feel the vastness of space within and around us.
Just as nature needs the right balance of water and earth to flourish, so we need for the elements in our bodies to work together harmoniously. Yoga can help us recognize when we have lost our elemental equilibrium. When we're too fluid, we lose our sense of stability. When we're too earthbound, our creativity suffers. In fact, these two elements—water and earth—that were so much a part of my seashore experience, are also the dominant elements of Matsyasana, or Fish Pose.
The Sanskrit name for Fish Pose refers to Matsya, who was an incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu. The story goes that, long ago, the earth had become corrupt and was going to be overtaken by a flood. Vishnu, who was charged with preserving the universe, turned himself into a fish called Matsya. He carried the great Hindu sages to safety in a boat, which ensured the preservation of all of their wisdom and of mankind itself. Just as Matsya rebalanced earth and ocean, so practicing Fish Pose can be a way of reestablishing your focus and giving you resiliency when you feel gravity laden. You'll feel this when you burrow into the earth through the strong activity of your legs, which, in turn, buoys your chest like a wave and deepens your breath. Fish Pose also strengthens your back and your abdominals, and yogis believe that the deep neck curve benefits the thyroid. Like all backward-bending poses, Matsyasana lifts your heart and lightens your mood.
Matsyasana is better than a coffee break—it will wake you up, ground you, and leave you feeling refreshed. In fact, you could even do it under your desk in the middle of the afternoon! If you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk or in a car, you've probably noticed that your spine typically rounds forward and your chest sinks. You can begin to reverse that physical pattern by creating new movement imprints that are similar to those of Matsyasana.
Begin your practice with Tadasana (Mountain Pose), then fold into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). From there, step back into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose).
After three to five breaths in Down Dog, shift forward into Plank Pose. The strong work of the legs in this pose will be important for your Fish Pose later. From Plank slowly lower yourself onto your tummy. Press your hips back into Balasana (Child's Pose) for a few breaths, and then return to Downward-Facing Dog. Repeat this short sequence three times to get warmed up.
Step 1: Ship's Figurehead
Continuing from the previous sequence, the fourth time you lower yourself to the floor, stay there. Place your forehead on the floor. Keep your legs still. Reach your arms behind your back and interlace your fingers, creating a two-handed fist. Slightly bend your elbows to allow your shoulders to roll up and forward just a bit. This makes the shoulder blades broaden away from each other. Now roll your shoulders back and feel the shoulder blades tuck into your back. Can you feel how that opens your chest? Press your feet and legs down into the mat and lift your chest, shoulders, and head off the floor into a small upper backbend. Let the lift come from the downward action of the legs and the chest opening from the work of the shoulder blades.
Don't you feel like the figurehead on the front of a ship? Maybe a ship like Matsya's! After three breaths, come down. Turn your head to the side, and rest. Repeat this, making sure that the backbend begins when the sternum—not the nose or chin—lifts in response to the legs pressing down.
Step 2: Supported Fish at the Wall
Sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose) with the soles of your feet touching the wall. Place a rolled-up blanket where your shoulder blades will be when you lie back, and a folded blanket where your head will be.
Use your hands to press your thighs toward the floor. The more the femurs drop, the more you cultivate downward-moving energy in the body. This helps us feel grounded, safe, and confident enough to let go emotionally. The downward action creates the anchor for the chest to rise up, like a hot-air balloon.
Keep your legs engaged as you slowly lie down. Align the rolled blanket along the bottom edge of your shoulder blades. Externally rotate your upper arms, and as you continue to lie back, let your shoulders slide down your back and your neck elongate. Place the base of your skull on the other blanket. Hold on to your opposite elbows over your head.
Firmly press your feet into the wall, noticing how that affects your spine. Try to relax your chest and ribs so the work of opening your back comes from the action of the legs and the support of the roll. Move your breath into the back and sides of your body. Feel the tide of breath rolling in and out, and relax into this wavelike rhythm, as if you were floating on the ocean. Imagine the balloon of your chest sways in the wind but doesn't float away.
Stay here for one to three minutes. Then bend your knees softly, roll onto your right side, and slowly sit up.
Final Pose: Full Fish Pose
Now you are ready for Matsyasana. Lie on your back in Supta Tadasana (Reclining Mountain Pose), strong legs together, feet flexed. Make fists and bend your elbows. On an inhalation, press your elbows down, letting that lift your chest up so high that you can place the very top of your head on the floor. Then, place your hands palms down at your sides and tiptoe your fingers toward your feet as far as you can. Press your palms firmly into the ground and lift your elbows. This step is important, because it tucks your shoulder blades into your back to create a supportive lift and opening of the chest. If you keep your elbows pressing down, you will scrunch your neck and shoulders, which is not what you want.
The position of the neck in Fish Pose is much deeper than it was in the prep poses, but if you are really using your legs and arms, your neck should feel long and there should be only a little bit of weight on your head. If there is too much weight on your head, it probably means that your hands are not pressing down and you're not getting enough lift in your chest.
Once you feel situated, you can drop into your experience as it unfolds. Most of us try to control our experiences, but for the yoga to really happen, we need to let go. Can you relax your thinking mind and tune in to a more expansive sense of awareness? Feeling the weight of your bones, the flow of your breath, the waters of your belly, and the fire in your muscles, you may naturally begin to experience the element of space. As you breathe, simply rest in this place of openness and support.
After two to three breaths, place your elbows back on the floor, pressing them down. Lift your head, with your chin toward your chest, and move through every vertebra as you roll onto your back. Relax for a few breaths.
Fluid and Stable
To finish, place your feet on the floor and let your knees fall gently side to side. Finally, roll over and sit up on a blanket, with your legs crossed. Quietly observe the effects of your practice. Can you feel, even now, how your connection to the earth helps support the lift of your spine and the deepening of your breath? Maybe you feel a deeper sense of elemental integration than before your practice. Perhaps you can carry that feeling into your day, with every step on the earth giving you the fluidity to be spontaneous, open, and connected with all that you meet. If you are lucky, you might even meet Leroy!
Yoga is like all other relationships: The more good-hearted effort ou commit, the more you get back. In fact, commitment is one of the essential guidelines of the complete yogic path. Patanjali's Yoga Sutra teaches that to be a true yogi, one must have a burning devotion to daily practices of asana, pPranayama (breathing techniques), and meditation as well as disciplined lifestyle choices about eating, drinking, and socializing. Or, as my teacher liked to say, you should "Practice like your hair's on fire!"
Practicing regularly can be quite a tall order, especially if you are new to yoga. You may already be feeling a sense of well-being, increased flexibility, and a spring in your step. But that doesn't necessarily mean that you feel motivated to get up an hour earlier to sit in meditation every day, or choose an asana class over dinner with friends.
The moment I met my husband, he made me laugh, and after each date I couldn't wait to see him again! But it took a while to feel the kind of till-death-do-us-part commitment that we have now. Having that -feeling earlier in our dating life would have been weird, creepy, and inappropriately intense.
The Sanskrit name for the commitment to yoga practice is tapas, which is often translated as "discipline." But it's a discipline of choice—not something to force on yourself at an unnaturally fast pace. Your relationship to yoga can be like a romance that first sparks a flame in your heart, then becomes all-consuming for a while (even making you feel downright giddy), but eventually settles into the role of lifelong companion. You come to trust your practice, even when it surprises you.
You might not be in love with yoga after your first Downward Dog, but over time, you will remember how good you felt at the end of your practice session, and you'll look forward to the next one—just as I looked forward to seeing my husband while we were still dating. Often when people first learn about tapas, they feel required to adopt a strict daily regimen before they've really discovered what yoga means to them. Sometimes this good intention creates too much pressure and drives you to burnout. Instead, take it slowly, one asana at a time. Savor each practice session and do just enough to feel hungry for more. In this way, the fire of tapas will grow within you, becoming a powerful partner on your yogic path.
Cyndi Lee is an author, artist, and the founder of OM Yoga Center in New York.