Vasisthasana: Balancing Outside Your Comfort Zone
If you practice yoga, you probably favor some poses over others. Most of us like the poses that are easy for us as well as the ones that show off our strengths. The others, not so much. At some point in my 30 years of practice, almost every pose that’s been within my reach has held favorite status for me, at least for a while. Since every pose influences the mind-body in a different way at life’s different junctures, all yoga’s asanas have fallen in and out of favor for me, sometimes multiple times.
I can safely say that this month’s pose, Vasisthasana (Pose of the Sage Vasistha) is one of the few that has never been a favorite. Perhaps that’s why I practice it. I don’t exactly dislike it, but I practice it because it’s good for me, in the same way that taking cod liver oil is good for me. Poses that require—and show off—my flexibility are a lot more fun. But Vasisthasana challenges me in less comfortable ways, and sometimes leaving my comfort zone is far more interesting than doing what feels good.
Vasistha’s Cow of Plenty
Vasisthasana is named for the sage Vasistha. Legend has it that he owned Nandini, the “cow of plenty,” who could instantly grant any of his wishes for material riches. Vasistha, a selfless being who wasn’t swayed by the temptations of earthly wealth, employed Nandini’s talents in the interest of generosity to others. Yogic lore contains many stories about covetous greedheads who tried their best to wrest this cow of infinite pleasure away from Vasistha. They were never successful, of course. Vasistha’s selfless virtue always won out.
Vasistha is known for having taught about the happiness of forgoing fleeting material pleasures in favor of an ultimately more satisfying—and far more difficult to attain—happiness that comes with living a simpler, more introspective life.
Like the sage’s chosen life, Vasisthasana, the pose, is quite simple. It is Tadasana (Mountain Pose), the most basic of standing poses, practiced in a different relationship to gravity. But despite its simplicity, practicing Vasisthasana requires strength, balance and concentration. It also builds them, quite powerfully.
On a physical level, the pose strengthens and tones your abdomen, shoulder girdle, abdomen, low back, gluteal muscles and legs. It simultaneously strengthens and stretches your wrists. The expansive shape of the pose is said to reduce depression and anxiety, while its strengthening qualities increase confidence, determination and will power.
How To Practice
Begin in a simple plank pose, arms straight—like the “up” portion of a push-up—on a nonskid mat. Press your palms into your mat as you lift up through your shoulders. Turn onto the outside of your right foot, stacking your left foot on top of it. Rotate your entire body to face forward. Press your right hand evenly from heel to fingers, inside to outside, into the floor as you raise your left arm up toward the sky.
Make sure your pelvis is lifting up, aligned with the rest of your torso rather than sagging toward the floor, a position that can place extra strain on your wrist. Take five to ten deep breaths, simultaneously grounding your right hand as you expand your left arm upward. Return to plank pose and repeat on the other side.
If your balance feels shaky, you can place the toes of your top foot on the floor slightly in front of your bottom foot. If your arms are not ready to bear the weight of the rest of your body, try bending the knee of your bottom leg and supporting yourself on your knee, shin and leg. This variation is also appropriate if your wrist is not ready to stretch that far while bearing your weight.
The traditional path of yoga is one of renunciation, and the freedom that comes from renouncing our addiction to worldly pleasures—material goods and pleasant experiences. It is not, mind you, renouncing the things themselves, but our never-ending dependence on them for our happiness.
Originally, the practice of yoga went against the grain; those who practiced it lived outside the mainstream, giving up the things the rest of society endlessly strived for. Vasisthasana, while it might not be your or my favorite pose, can teach us about the benefits of orienting our lives toward those things that don’t bring instant gratification, but rather a subtler, deeper and more lasting sense of well being.