Malasana: How to Know Squat
One of my favorite things about writing about asana practice is that in the process of researching poses each month, I often learn something new. Even as I head into my 32nd year of practice, I’m well aware that I know only a small fraction of what there is to know about yoga. So I’m always delighted when I uncover something that helps me understand the practice a little better.
What’s In a Name?
Such is the case with this month’s pose, Malasana, commonly known as “Garland Pose.” I’ve always wondered about its name. I figured it came from the Sanskrit word “mala”—those little round rosary-like beads used for meditation—but I could never figure out what squatting had to do with a necklace. So I embarked on some Google research to see if there was a mythological reference that might help me make the connection.
As it turns out, Malasana’s name has nothing to do with garlands or beads. Due to a mistranslation that doesn’t take into account the subtle differences between Sanskrit’s long and short “a,” the word that would be correctly transcribed as ”maalaa” (garland) was confused with the word “mala” (excrement). According to the Indian ashram Jaisiyaram’s website, Malasana properly translates to “Shitting Pose.”
Even though “Garland Pose” sounds so much more genteel, the latter translation makes a whole lot more sense. India’s potties are different from ours. Not everyone has one in their home, and where there are formal facilities, traditional ones are at ground level, making squatting the number one position for accomplishing number two.
Benefits of Malasana
February’s name comes from the Latin root “febrire,” meaning “to purify.” This makes Malasana a pertinent position for the month of purification. Malasana supports apana, the downward-flowing energy that governs elimination. Apana energy grounds agitation, making Malasana a great counterpose for stress. Not surprisingly, Malasana relieves constipation. In addition, it stretches the ankles, groins and lower legs, and tones the abdomen and pelvic floor.
In an online article, provocatively titled “Stop Doing Kegels: Real Pelvic Floor Advice for Women (and Men)” Nicole Crawford claims that squatting is far more helpful for strengthening your pelvic floor muscles than are traditional kegel exercises. Kegels, she says, only serve to tighten—not strengthen—the pelvic floor, as they tilt the sacrum under and weaken the glutes. Squatting, she says, creates a posterior pull on the sacrum that balances the work of the pelvic floor muscles.
How to Squat
Practicing Malasana is simple, although depending on the flexibility of your ankles, knees and lower legs, it may require some helpful props. Have handy a foam or cork wedge (as in the photo), or a folded blanket, in addition to a nonskid mat. If you’ve had knee surgery, or are contemplating knee surgery, the knee flexion required for Malasana may be too extreme. It’s best not to practice Malasana if your knees are compromised.
Start by squatting on a nonskid mat with your feet hip-width apart and parallel. Let your heels descend toward the floor. If they don’t reach, place a wedge or folded blanket under your heels so that they are evenly grounded. You may need as much as three or four inches of height under your heels. Spread your heels, balls of your feet and your toes, grounding evenly across your feet.
Once you feel stable, widen your legs so that your torso fits snugly in between your thighs. Place your hands in Anjali Mudra (Prayer Position). Take five to ten deep breaths to settle into the pose.
Saving the SI Joint
New Zealand yoga teacher Donna Farhi notes that in her travels around the world, she’s found that dysfunction in the sacroiliac joint (SI joint)—the meeting of the two posterior surfaces of the pelvis with the sacrum, the triangular-shaped bone at the base of the spine—has become the most common injury among female yoga practitioners. Since the hip joints, legs and SI joints are symmetrical in Malasana, I find that practicing it can be helpful when my hypermobile sacrum becomes rotated inside the joint, causing a painful pinching sensation.
The following simple variation helps correct SI joint dysfunction and can relieve sciatica pain. It also tones your abdomen. While in Malasana, squeeze in on your shoulders with your knees and inner thighs. As you do this, note how your abdomen tones back toward your spine and your back body expands. Take five or so breaths before releasing the squeeze. Repeat a few more times.
Even though Sanskrit is an ancient language that is largely unspoken these days except among its scholars, some of its root syllables are familiar to us in English and in the Romance languages. This is true for the root “mal,” which when used as a prefix turns a perfectly nice English word into something contrary. The word also has rather wicked connotations in Italian, Spanish and French. But knowing the truth about Malasana’s etymology only increases my appreciation of it. If the key to freedom is letting go of what is no longer needed, then Malasana just might be one of yoga’s most auspicious asanas.