By Catherine Ghosh (Krishna Kanta Dasi)
In this column, Catherine Ghosh delves deeply inside an asana to explore its inner symbolism and rich depth. In this article, she examines and uncovers the deep mysticism behind Bhujangasana, the cobra pose.
It is rare to survive the bite of a poisonous snake. For those who do so among the residents of the Himalayas, a desirable prophecy is given: You will now become either a king or a sage! Tucked into this dramatic village superstition, we find the dual nature ascribed to the snake still thriving in today’s mythos. Awed for how easily the reptile can shed the skin of its old life and slip into a new one and for its ability to kill with a single bite, the snake swiftly came to symbolize death and rebirth: the cyclical nature of existence itself, as when we see the snake depicted at the hub of the wheel of samsara, or hear it taunting Eve in the Garden of Eden. Snakes were thus imbued with potent transformative energy, mystical powers and the wisdom to unlock the secrets of immortality. They were both feared and adored, linked with the dual energies of regeneration and extermination, and connected to dark underworlds as often as they were to divine light.
Speaking to the human psyche in so many rich ways, it’s not surprising that snake shapes adorned the architecture of the world’s most ancient civilizations, as often as they did the visions of their sages. Carl Jung believed that the analysis of our relationship to snakes (above all other animals) holds essential keys to unlocking the voice of the unconscious mind. This voice is perhaps most audible within the exotic vistas found in Vedic cosmology, which sees and hears snakes in every corner of our universe, and beyond! From the cobras illuminating the darker planetary systems via the gems on their hoods, to the divine Ananta Sesha’s billion hoods sustaining the entire material creation, snake imagery abounds. Like the Universal form Krishna showed Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, visions of divinity are often decorated with snakes and the relationships divine seers have to snakes are intimate ones indeed. In fact, the author of the Yoga Sutras, sage Patanjali himself, is depicted as being half-man, half-snake and as bearing the same multiple snake-hood headdress worn by many other ancient deities from Egyptian pharaohs to Buddha. Encompassing both the ensnaring and liberating forces permeating our very existence, snake shapes naturally found their way into asanapractice.
The snake posture’s Sanskrit name, Bhujangasana, reflects the dual serpentine energy observed in the ancient texts from which it came. Bhuja, describing its circular coils, and anga, the limb-like, linear form it assumes when extended. The uniting of these two, opposite symbols in a singular creature, effortlessly linked snakes with sexuality and filled ancient manuscripts with amazingly accurate details unlocking the mysteries of reproduction long before the first microscope was ever invented. The coiled snake became the egg and the moving snake, with its oversized head and unique undulations, the sperm. In fact, nearly every culture’s creation myth eagerly engages the snake: The Egyptian’s god Ra assumed the form of a snake to inseminate the cosmic egg. The Chinese depicted the universe as being wrapped in the coils of two entwined snakes of opposite gender, later understood as the Ying and Yang forces in life. The Greeks called this figure Ouroboros, which is depicted as a circle formed by a snake swallowing its own tail. These potent generative forces are thus summoned within Bhujangasana, as the practitioner develops his or her ability to directly engage them in the gestation of pure inner consciousness. For like the mythical snake, our own sexuality can serve to either further entangle us in or liberate us from the material coils.
It was Tantric healers in India who first discovered that the same poisonous snake venom that could take one’s life could also return it! By engaging the homeopathic principle of opposites, poison from snakes was administered to heal. The Greeks were so impressed by this inscrutable power that they depicted Aesculapius (their healing god), as residing in a temple filled with slithering snakes and carrying the snake-staff that is believed to have inspired the caduceus symbol of today’s modern medics. Could the secret to eternal life be as simple as eagerly facing the poison that was formally feared?…
Read the rest of this article in the Spring 2011 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.