asanas, vinyasas, and matsyendrasana

Ashtanga yoga is a system of asanas and vinyasas. Asanas are yoga postures strung together in a specific order with clearly defined movements. These movements occur simultaneously with either an inhale or exhale between postures, and these movements with breath are called vinyasas. Other forms of vinyasa yoga all stem from Ashtanga.

There are different sequences which we group together to form a practice, usually lasting from about 45 minutes to 2 hours. Each practice begins with sun salutations and fundamental standing postures. Then one could add part of, or a whole series, such as primary or intermediate series. Next, we do backbends, and for a counter pose to this backbending, a forward fold. Lastly comes a closing sequence and resting time.

All asanas (postures) are strung together in a specific sequence which moves the body in an intelligently designed way. Many asanas have counter-asanas. In the closing sequence, we have 7 progressive shoulder stands with Matsyasana (the fish posture) serving as counterpose to the shoulder stands. In shoulder stands, the head is placed forward toward the chest – the chin is very close to the clavicles with the spine moving straight upward. With Matsyasana, the head tilts way back away from the chest with the spine curving forward in a deep upper backbend shape. Many asanas have fascinating myths and stories surrounding them.

Matsyasana, the fish posture (pictured in the header image above) has one of my favorite legends connected to it. As with many mythical stories from all over the world, there are many versions, but here is a nice one as told by Amy Vaughn:

Shiva decided to teach his wife, the goddess Parvati, the teachings of Hatha Yoga; however, these powerful teachings needed to remain closely held secrets. So Shiva took Parvati to the ocean floor and created a giant air dome in which to transmit these sacred lessons.

Years earlier, a human child had been born under terribly inauspicious signs. This child, who would become Matsyendra, was cast into the ocean at birth. He was swallowed whole by a giant fish, within which he grew to be a man.

The stories of Shiva and Matsyendra meet up when Matsyendra, inside his fish, came across Shiva teaching Parvati in their bubble under the sea. He stayed nearby, listening. Parvati eventually became bored. (Goddess devotees inform us that this was because she already knew everything about Hatha Yoga and was just humoring her husband.) As Parvati’s eyes glazed over Shiva said, “Fine! Is there no one listening to me?”

“I am listening,” said Matsyendra from his fish.

Shiva taught Matsyendra the secrets of Hatha Yoga. Matsyendra stayed in the fish another 12 years practicing, and then his fish was caught and sliced open. He emerged a fully realized yogin.

Lord Shiva and the Goddess Parvati as a single entity