~Like the mythical snake, our own sexuality can serve to either further entangle, or liberate us from the material coils~
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 its ease to 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 both the 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, snake shapes unsurprisingly 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 (over and 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 relationship divine seers have to snakes an intimate one 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 many other ancient deities of divinity wear, stretching from Egyptian pharos to Buddha. Encompassing both the ensnaring and liberating forces permeating our very existence, snake shapes naturally found their way into yogasana practice.
The snake posture’s Sanskrit name, Bhujangasana, reflects the dual serpentine energy observed in the ancient texts it came from. 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 over-sized 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 consciousness within. For like the mythical snake, our own sexuality can serve to either further entangle, 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 thusly administered to heal. The Greeks were so impressed by this inscrutable power that they depicted Aesculapius (their healing god), as residing in a temple slithering with snakes and carrying the snake-staff that is believed to have inspired the cadeuceus symbol of today’s modern medics. Could the secret to eternal life be as simple as eagerly facing the poison that was formally feared? This directive as to how to courageously posture oneself in relation to the perceived dangers in the world is certainly part of the meditations energizing the cobra pose.
Greatly concerned with the dangers he believed threatened the spiritual welfare of his readers, Vyasa begins to unfold the whole of the illuminating knowledge in the Bhagavat Purana, around the threat of a snake-bite. Intent on transforming the consciousness of the readers in ways in which he felt his previous writings had fallen short, he engages the most popular archetype of transformation: the serpent, and narrates the story of a king who has been cursed to die of its poisonous bite in seven days.
Like the Aztec’s feathered serpent Quetzlcoatl, who connected the heavenly planes with the earthly ones, Vyasa’s feathered serpent brings about the line of inquiry that connects his readers on Earth with heavenly views of divinity, as King Parikshit asks Shuka Goswami (who represents the Guru) to show “the path of perfection” for all living beings, and particularly those on the verge of death.
The seven days in which the king has to enter samadhi are compared to the seven cosmic layers one needs to ascend through in vedic cosmology to reach the spiritual realms. While in the cobra posture, these levels of consciousness are represented microcosmically by the seven chakras aligning the spine, as it gradually curves backwards. Beyond the seven levels we find enlightenment.
Consequently, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra lists dhyana, or meditation, as the seventh limb of Yoga, followed only by samadhi. Interestingly, Vyasa’s Bhagavat Purana is the seventh work he composed, following the four Vedas, the Vedanta Sutras and the Mahabharata, as he was finally satisfied by clearly illuminating divinity as the supreme object of loving meditation. As dhyana is the center of the three “inner” limbs, or samyama, the Bhagavat Purana is the core of all Vedic literature. Consequently, as the yogi straightens their arms and lifts their upper body in Bhujangasana, their chest opens in a presentation of vitality (the lungs) and bravery (the heart), for it is not only death one faces, but love as well. From the yogic perspective, the two are often interchangeable, as love becomes a path to immortality.
According to the puranic view of cosmic chronology, we find ourselves in an age in which the main impediment in giving ourselves to love is our own inability to be flexible, and our quickness to anger. Appropriately, it is a fit of prideful anger that drives King Parikshit to garland a sage with a dead snake, and the age of kali (darkness), responds in kind by introducing the second feathered-snake in the story as the deadly curse. Just as in Tibetan Buddhist iconography, the snake appears as anger, a veil that obstructs clear vision.
The increased body heat experienced in the cobra pose is traditionally regarded as a byproduct of the transformation of anger into the creative force of our very soul. When aligned with this force the yogi’s vision is clear, and one’s ability to move with flexibility through life increases. The particular spinal curve in Bhujangasana is believed to act as a stimulant for the movement of prana (life force) within the body, which floats our very soul, and incidentally, is itself traditionally regarded as floating atop the hoods of a serpent within us.
Whether the serpents are within us, or slithering around on the outside, nearly every ancient civilization associates this particular time period (beginning around 500 years ago and continuing for another 9,000 years) with an overabundance of them! The recent fascination with snakes in the zodiac, (such as Ophiuchus), and the imminent Chinese year of the serpent-dragon, as well as the Mayan’s prophecies, all translate into the yogic understanding that cosmic chronology has ushered in an era of dramatic changes and transformations.
For just as prana is stimulated and elevated by the spinal curvature assumed during the cobra pose, Vedic texts describe our particular place in time as most conducive for an overall stimulating and elevating of consciousness. In the bhakti-yoga tradition this is especially expressed in Chaitanya’s kirtan parties, which sent undulating vibrations of Sanskrit mantras aimed at transforming consciousness across the villages of medieval India. It is a practice that continues to grow in popularity among yoga circles, and a prediction that was given when Chaitanya was seen fearlessly playing with snakes as a child.
In assuming the cobra pose, yogis around the world and throughout time, similarly invite into play all the snakes and serpents antiquity has voluptuously woven into our very existence. Some of the most beautiful verses of the Bhagavat Purana are spoken by female nagas, or serpents, whose prayers identify any hardships one may encounter as a disguised grace designed to impart spiritual wisdom. Such an evolved perspective invites a shift in one’s consciousness, which is precisely what their husband, the Kaliya serpent experienced after his battle with divinity. Such revolutionary change, moving from one extreme to another, is typically symbolized in the snake.
In Vedic astrology this is represented by the subtle planets Rahu and Ketu, which appear as the snake’s head and tail, respectively. Instead of drinking in their poison, (for only Siva can do that effectively), the yogi dances in revolving circles atop their heads, as Krishna did atop the many hoods of the poisonous Kaliya serpent. Instead of mimicking the snake’s angry strikes, (as King Partiksit did at the beginning of the Bhagavat Purana,) the yogi moves lovingly through the world and in relation to those around us. Instead of fearing the deadly bite of the cobra, the yogi walks bravely into the cavernous mouth of the huge snake of death, as Krishna’s most intimate friends, the cowherd boys, did when they playfully skipped into Aghasura’s jaws. These are but a few of the meditations that have absorbed practitioners of bhujangasana over the ages.
The yogi encounters these stories in the very center of Vyasa’s seventh book. And at the core of the core, we find what the text itself calls the topmost yoginis: Krishna’s beloved Gopis, who themselves enter into bhujangasana, in an attempt to bear the pain of being separated from divinity, as they recall these exchanges Krishna had with snakes. Pleased with the Gopis’ intense dhyana, or meditations, Krishna appears directly before them. Bhujangasana thus creates a fertile environment in which to beckon and see divinity.
Thus beyond the many fertility snake gods and goddesses prayed to the world over for progeny, from Nageshvari, or Manasa Devi, to the Sumerian Ningizzida, we have the Gopis themselves demonstrating the ultimate terrain to make most fertile: our very own consciousness. The cobra posture thus aims at planting and growing divine seeds in our consciousness, and then delighting in the progeny of our own enlightenment.
An extreme variation of Bhujangasana thus arches the yogi’s spine back and folds their legs up (feet touching head), to create the full circle of a snake’s coils, giving us the most esoteric meditation associated with the asana. This mandala shape, found at the heart of the Puranic texts, represents the coils of divine love every bhakti yogi desires to be captured in. Within the center of this circle we find Radha and Krishna, the masculine and feminine divine, the dual energies symbolized in the snake, twirling amorously around one another, like the spinning spirals of kundalini energy surging up the spine said to awaken with regular practice of bhujangasana.
Spinning further are the gopi dancers around the divine couple, who keep them locked in the mandala-like coils of divine love. Such is the enchanting vision that influences Radha when she experiences Krishna’s limbs (or angas) as thick snakes that wrap around her. Similarly enchanted, Krishna experiences Radha’s swinging, braided-hair to be a black snake that slithers around his body, as they both fearlessly lose themselves in the immortal dance of divine love.
*This article was first published by Integral Yoga Magazine*
Copyright © 2011. By Catherine Ghosh All rights reserved