Pose of the Month: Kurmasana

Yoga Pose of the MonthThe Bhagavad Gita, one of yoga’s most sacred texts, spends eighteen chapters exploring the path of enlightenment.  In Chapter two, verse 58, Krishna says to Arjuna, “Having drawn back all the senses from the objects of sense as a tortoise draws back into his shell that man is a man of firm wisdom.”  The instruction is to draw inward like a tortoise in order to find the experience of pratyahara, what the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali define as sense withdrawal.  From this place free of external distractions, one can rest in atman (or the true Self), and find eternal peace.

Kurmasana, or tortoise pose, in all it’s variations provides the opportunity to withdraw from external distractions and pull deeply inward physically, mentally and even emotionally.  The structure, even of the most basic preparation of the asana, is one of turning inward.  From baddha konasana, you shift your feet forward and create more space in your legs to act as a “shell.”  Then, you pull inward, drawing your head toward the heart and surrendering forward.  In this space, the sound of the breath becomes more audible and the external distractions fade into the background.  For some, this experience of the asana can be quite intense, pulling your inward focus into your physical body through sensation.  But that is the goal, to go in.

For others, this most basic preparation of the pose is fairly easeful.  It can be a relaxing space in which to tune into breath and relax.  If this is the case, then the pose can be more fully engaged by extending the arms out to the sides, which more deeply engages the shoulder blades at the base of the heart, or even flexing the elbows and reaching the arms around the back of the body.  Then work on retracting the shoulders toward the spine to open the front of the chest more.  Once here, the legs can be extended to intensify the adduction of the shoulders, increase the stretch in the hamstrings and deepen the forward fold by flexing more fully at the hips. The effort in this variation is more extreme, and the work then is to surrender into the inward space of witnessing the experience.

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Turtles in many aspects of mythology and lore represent the energy of the earth.  Slow, deliberate, and purposeful, they are easily protected simply by pulling in. The turtle is able to withstand extreme dangers or disturbances without being knocked off center.  This idea is a foundational concept in the practice of yoga.  When the life of the senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell) becomes our main focus, our connection to our center is often lost.  My teacher often talks about the cell phone/latte mudra of our present day culture.  The mudra of walking, or running, around with a cell phone at our ear, our latte in our hand while driving a car, solving the latest work crisis and listening to the top 40 hits on the radio all simultaneously.  We end our days feeling exhausted, drained, and unfulfilled.  We may have fat bank accounts and skinny waistlines, but how do we truly feel when we are alone and quiet?

Kurmasana is a place into which we can retreat to reconnect with what is alive inside of us, instead of what is draining our lives outside of us.  Be aware, though, it is not always an easy place to stay in the beginning.  It can be dark, and confined, detached from all of our mechanisms of escape.  When we draw into ourselves like a tortoise into its shell, we are left with only the silent rhythm of our breath, and the connection to our physical sensations to sustain us.  All of the stuff from which we are constantly running away has an opportunity to surface.  Our fears, our disappointments, even our regrets can arise in this pose.  But the important thing to remember in Kurmasana is that we are always protected.  We carry within us an amazing strength that can allow us to filter out all of the things that we constantly avoid, and seek instead a calm place of acceptance within.

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Once acceptance is reached, Kurmasana becomes a keystone to our practice, the place of contentment that is the foundation to a fulfilling and joyous life.  Like a turtle, we have to be brave enough to stand in the middle of chaos, and wise enough to know when to pull into our selves in order to survive and sustain.  Our strength comes in the recognition of our own powerful center, which is the part of us that accepts everything unwaveringly and without judgment.  The still point within that is continuous and nourishing is what we can draw on to bring balance into our lives regardless of our external circumstances. 

When you practice Kurmasana, you can observe how comfortable you are with drawing inward to sustain.  Don’t be discouraged if at first it seems chaotic, much like the workings of the mind.  It takes time to power down once you unplug from life, but the rewards are beautiful.

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