When you practice skillful actions, Vishnu's pose can feel as relaxed and peaceful as it looks.
When the Hindu deity Lord Vishnu is depicted in traditional images, resting on a cosmic-serpent couch as he dreams the world into existence, he looks calm and effortlessly equanimous. When you see yogis skillfully practicing Anantasana (Reclining Pose Dedicated to Vishnu), his namesake pose, you might imagine that their relaxed, poised demeanor means the pose is laid-back and easy. But looks can be deceiving: Anantasana requires you to balance on the fine line of the side of the body while one leg extends up to infinity. Any number of things can pull you off balance. If you lose your focus, you might topple over, tweak your neck, or bruise your pride. Lose stability along your spine, slouch your back, or round your shoulders, and the pose collapses.
Throughout this practice, you'll open your shoulders and hips while you create length in your torso, arms, and legs. In addition, you'll engage your core in order to stabilize the spine. All of the movements and actions will help keep you balanced in the final pose. But remember, finding your balance is a constant, dynamic process. It's a dance that changes from moment to moment. By staying sensitive, clear, and courageous in all of your poses, you can become more aware of the tiny adjustments that you need to make in order to stay stable in Anantasana. Also, it should be noted that losing your balance is not a bad thing; it brings the edges of extremes to light and shows you where you need more physical or mental support. And it's preferable to holding on to or struggling through a pose. The following instructions will encourage you to coordinate a dynamic balance; so let go of the struggle to balance and instead play lightly to understand what kind of physical support is needed to create the luxurious reclining feel of this pose. When your physical alignment is in place, you just might find that you begin to open to the clear, quiet stillness of Vishnu's repose on his cosmic serpent.
5 Steps to Anantasana
Practice this sequence all the way through, taking Supta Padangusthasana II (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose II) on the left side first. This will prepare the left leg to open fully when you lie on your right side to come into Anantasana. Then, when you release Anantasana on the first side, come back to the beginning and practice the entire sequence again on your second side.
1. Supta Tadasana (Reclining Mountain Pose) variation
This supine position, Supta Tadasana, will make it easy to feel the natural curve of your lumbar spine (low back), the lengthening through your torso and limbs, and the engagement in your core. Slide your thumbs underneath your buttocks toward your feet to relieve any overarching in the lumbar spine. At the same time, avoid pressing the low back into the floor. You want to maintain the natural curve of the spine. Flex your feet and extend from your buttocks through your heels.
On an exhalation, soften your temples and relax your jaw to encourage a feeling of relaxation throughout the body. Exhale a little more deeply until the muscles around your belly firm in toward the navel and down toward the lower back. Hold the sides of the mat and roll the outer edges of your upper arms toward the floor to externally rotate your upper arms so that your chest broadens. As you hold the mat, release the trapezius muscle (near the base of the neck) away from your ears.
Lift your arms and interlace your fingers with your palms facing the ceiling. Draw the inner arms down toward the shoulder joint until the arm bone sits firmly in the socket. Exhale deeply until the belly engages, and then slowly start to extend your arms overhead. Extend through the full length of the body for up to a minute here, breathing mindfully. Then release your arms by your sides.
2. Supta Padangusthasana II (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose II)
Anantasana requires that you externally rotate and extend the top leg—not an easy movement to master while balancing on your side. In order to do this without losing your balance, you'll use a blanket to prop your leg that extends to the side in order to learn how to isolate the actions of the hip while you keep the rest of your body steady and stable.
Place a firm blanket roll alongside your upper left thigh and pelvis. Bend your left knee, wrap a strap around your foot near the base of your toes, and extend your left leg toward the ceiling. Take your right hand and hold the outer edge of your mat. Externally rotate your right arm while keeping a neutral spine and maintaining length through the right side of your body.
Slowly extend the left leg out to the side. The blanket should catch the uppermost thigh where the femur (thighbone) and the hip joint intersect. By resting your leg on the blanket this way, you'll guide your femur to move toward the center of the hip socket and encourage the inner thigh to lengthen away from the pubis. Stay in Supta Padangusthasana for up to three minutes as you practice isolating the movement and extension of your left leg in your left hip. When you find that sweet rhythm of stability supporting mobility, ride the currents of your breath and relax the temples. Soften the diaphragm and allow the abdomen and pelvic area to be supple. Then lift the left leg and return to Supta Tadasana.
3. Plank Pose
Plank Pose will activate your abdominal and spinal muscles and engage your core strength. When done skillfully, this core support makes it possible to maintain the natural curves in your spine, which will help keep you stable in Anantasana. After you release Supta Padangusthasana, roll over onto your stomach and press back into Balasana (Child's Pose). Then come up onto your hands and knees and adjust your body so your shoulders are above your wrists. From here, straighten your legs back to come into Plank Pose.
You'll stabilize your arms and lengthen your legs to support the alignment in the torso and spine. Lift the inner thighs toward the ceiling and extend through the entire length of your legs from the flesh of the buttocks through the heels. Move the upper arms into the shoulder sockets and lengthen the sides of the sternum toward the chin so it feels as if you are drawing your chest forward between your arms. Release the trapezius muscle away from the ears to soften the neck.
Gently pull the pubic bone up toward the navel and then in toward the lower back. The front of the body should now feel firm, like a tabletop stabilizing your back body. Imagine the navel is the center of the tabletop, and firm your abdominal muscles evenly from the pubic bone to the navel and from the navel to the diaphragm. Even as the front of your body is firm, keep the abdomen long.
Lengthen the back of the body, like a tablecloth spread over the stability of the front body, by reaching through the buttocks and heels. Keep lifting the inner thighs toward the ceiling.
Breathe smoothly and remain in the pose for up to a minute. Look forward several feet in front of you and continue to extend the sternum forward to encourage the chest to open.
With your core engaged and the natural curves of your spine fully supported, you'll feel the kind of stability you'll need to replicate while balancing in your fullest expression of the final pose. To release Plank, slowly bend your elbows and lie on the floor.
4. Anantasana (Reclining Pose Dedicated to Vishnu), preparation
This variation of Anantasana will help you to open your shoulders and take a deep hip stretch as you set yourself up in preparation to transition into the full pose. From lying on your belly, roll onto your right side.
Position yourself so that the full length of your body is lying right at the edge of your mat. You'll use the mat edge as a guide to keep the full length of your body in a straight line. Extend your right arm along the edge of the mat with the palm of your hand facing down.
Rest the left hand on the floor in front of you to establish stability and help you balance as you work the main actions of engaging your core and opening your shoulders and hips. Press your heels away from your hips to encourage lengthening through your legs.
Draw the center of the sacrum in to-ward the pubic bone and move the pubis toward the navel to firm your core and prevent your lower back from overarching. Although your abdomen will be drawn back toward the lumbar spine, avoid shortening or gripping your belly and the diaphragm.
Move the right shoulder blade in toward the chest as you broaden across the front of your upper body. Extend through your right side body as much as you can so that the center of the armpit opens toward the floor. Reach through the right index finger so that you feel your torso lengthen all the way from the bottom of your rib cage. Bend the right elbow and rest your head in the palm of your hand. Bend the left knee and bring your foot on the floor just in front of the right thigh. Press the left foot against the right thigh and then bring your left hand onto your left leg just below your knee. Gently press the left knee back. Isolate the movement of the left leg into the left hip by stabilizing the full length of your body. Draw the left outer hip sharply forward toward the inner thigh to move the femur toward the center of the hip socket as you press the knee back.
Now you'll engage your abdominals to maintain the stability of your alignment and balance. Move the sacrum and shoulder blades in toward the front of the body and extend out through the full length of your right side, from your lower ribs through your right elbow, and then from your pelvis through your right leg. As you exhale, draw the navel toward the lumbar spine. Like pressing a flower between two pages, the back of the body and the left foot press in toward the center and enhance the feeling that your body is lengthening all the way from the sole of your right foot to your right elbow. Continue to refine your alignment to support the stability and length you've established, and see if you can begin to release any extra effort in order to encourage a relaxed feeling of repose.
5. Anantasana (Reclining Pose Dedicated to Vishnu)
Anantasana requires complete mindful attention in order to maintain extension and stability. As you transition into the full pose, initiate and refine your physical adjustments slowly and remain poised, calm, and centered.
Hug the left knee in close to the armpit and hold the big toe with your index finger, middle finger, and thumb. Draw the outer hip forward toward the inner thigh and slowly extend your left leg toward the ceiling. Press the big toe against your clasp and reach from the center of the hip socket up through your left leg. Continue to reach out through the right heel and draw the sacrum and right shoulder blade in toward the front body as you firm the navel in toward the spine.
Savor Anantasana for several minutes while you refine the pose. Follow your breath and ride the sweet rhythmic dance of stability and repose. To release, bend your left leg, roll onto your back, and begin the sequence on the other side.
Balance is a nuanced dance of coordinating opposing forces so that they work in concert with each other. Be courageous as you explore the razor's edge of balance and yet remain calm to refine the dance. With practice, your hips will open and the dance will become effortless as you learn to create stability in the sea of change.
Lisa Walford is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and a founding member of the Iyengar Yoga Therapeutics Research Group.