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3 tips for teaching the Half Lord of the Fishes (Ardha Matsyendrasana)

November 7, 2013 | 5 min read
Half Lord of the Fishes (Ardha Matsyendrasana)

Half Lord of the Fishes (Ardha Matsyendrasana) is a classic spinal twist that dates back the very beginnings of Hatha Yoga.

The pose is named after Matsyendra, the master yoga who founded the Hatha Yoga movement.  Matsyendra is a legendary figure in yoga history and folklore.  He is thought to have lived near the Bay of Bengal sometime between the seventh and tenth centuries.  And ancient Tibetan hagiographies (biographies tracing the lineage of important gurus) name Matsyendra as one of eighty-four maha-siddhas (master yogis with magic powers).

Bring a little magic to your class

Re-telling the myths of the asanas is a wonderful way to conjure up the spirit of ancient yogic traditions.   The story of Matsyendra’s life and extraordinary powers have been handed down over the centuries and preserved in Hindi mythology, ancient Tibetan hagiography (biographies of famous gurus) and the Hatha Pradipika.

One of the legends told in the Tibetan text,  reveals Matsyendra’s  original identity to be a fisherman  known by the name of Mi͂na.  One day while out on his boat, he catches a fish so big that it pulls him into the water and swallows him whole.   Protected by his good karma, Mi͂na does not perish, but lives on in the belly of the big fish.   Soon after, the fish swims near to the place where Shiva (Hindi Lord of Yoga) is teaching the secrets of yoga to his wife Parvati.  Hidden inside the fish, Mina is able to listen to Shiva’s instructions without being noticed.

Shiva’s instructions for yoga are lengthy, so when Parvati falls asleep, Shiva calls out to her, `are you listening?’   But it is Mi͂na who replies `Yes, I am listening’.   Delighted by the discovery, of a man inside a fish, Shiva blesses Mi͂na, renaming him Matsyendra, (Lord of the Fishes ,matsya = fish, indra = lord)     Matsyendra continues to study with Shiva for the next twelve years until the monster fish is finally caught and he is cut free.   Matsyendra is said to have leapt out of the fish and assumed Complete Lord of the Fishes pose (a  seated spinal twist taken in half lotus with an arm bind).  This shape is said to have enhanced his ability to learn yoga.

Explore the pose and its meanings

Like many of the legends surrounding yoga heroes and their poses, this story is a parable illustrating the yoga process at work.   During the twelve years Matsyendra studied yoga, he learned the tools needed to be a master yogi.

The Pradipika describes the main benefit of the pose  to be the awakening of  kundalini-shakti  (the sleeping serpent power coiled at the base of the spine).    This process is said to lead to a phenomenal burst of energy accompanied by a heightened awareness and feelings of bliss.   In the story, this experience is described as being set free from the body of a fish.

Take a modern twist on an ancient tale

As the legend suggests, Matsyendra was an expert at using the technology of the body to access the higher powers of the mind.   He and his fellow yogis understood the concept of body intelligence.   They also believed the kundalini-shakti  to be the centre of that intelligence.  And they rightly observed the spine to be the main structure connecting the energies of mind and body.   The dynamic twisting movement at work in this pose intends to force the energy (the sleeping serpent) located at the base of the spine (kundalini shakti) upwards towards the crown of the head.  This process intends to awaken the power of the intelligent body and unite it with the power of the mind.

The use of the breath is important to the pose – directing the flow of heating energy upwards on the inhale and the cooling energy of the mind downward on the exhale.    Modern neuroscience understands these currents of energy to be the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, alternately responsible for stimulating and calming the nervous system.

Teach your students the technology of the body

Grounding, lengthening and breathing are the three key tools used in this pose.    The full pose uses the leg in half lotus to ground the hips, while the arm wrapped round the torso helps to lift the torso and support the spinal extension.   To ground the hips in Half Lord of the Fishes, press the thigh and outer edge of the foot into the floor.   The placement of a blanket or block under the hips may also be used to enable the spinal extension and lift the torso, making room for the twist.    On the inhale, direct your students to lengthen the spine.  To make the twist, invite your students to wrap their arms around the torso, gently lifting the ribcage and turning from the belly.   On the exhale release the arms – one hand to outside of the knee and the other to the base of the spine.  Hold the pose for 5 – 10 breathes, deepening the twist with each exhale.

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