Like Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) and Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), Setu Bandha Sarvangasana is a perfect example of a pose that gets its name from the way it looks. But there's more to this moniker—which refers literally to the "construction of a bridge"— than meets the eye.
Derived from the Sanskrit verb si, "to bind," the word setu also means "bond or fetter; dike or dam." In many spiritual traditions, the bridge symbolizes a connection or bond between two banks or worlds, the mundane and the divine, divided by the river of life. Constructing and then crossing this bridge represents a radical transition or transformation, whereby we leave behind our transitory everyday existence and enter the enlightened realm of the eternal Self (atman).
The yoga tradition equates the "bridge to immortality" with the Self (Mundaka Upanishad, 2.2.3). In other words, while the goal of practice is to realize our connection to the divine Self, the Self is also the bridge to reaching that goal. Confusing, huh? By way of explanation, it might be useful to review the definition of the word yoga. The most common translation is "union" or "Self-integration," which is what all of us practitioners are diligently seeking. But most people don't realize that yoga also means "method" or "employment." So on the one hand, yoga denotes the goal of the practice (union); on the other, it is the means we must employ to reach that goal. A famous maxim, found in an old commentary by Vyasa on Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, pithily summarizes this idea: "Yoga is to be known by Yoga, and Yoga itself leads to Yoga."
This means we don't need to search far and wide or buy any expensive equipment for our bridge-building project. Each of us is innately endowed with a toolkit, our own Self, which we assemble by following the blueprints and wielding the variety of construction tools provided by yoga.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana is a visual reminder of the venerable Self-as-bridge teaching. It's also, by extension, a representation of all the asanas, which might be known collectively as bridge-building tools par excellence. Asanas help us ground our bridge in the bedrock of the river and firm its trusses to support our passage.
Richard Rosen, who teaches in Oakland and Berkeley, California, has been writing for Yoga Journal since the 1970s.