The Spirit of the Snake - It's Meaning, Metaphor and Message
When one looks out at the ocean, a natural horizon line is seen. The water meets the sky and the colours are contrasted one against the other. During my practice this morning, I observed the beauty of the ocean’s aqua-green against the blue-grey sky. Then the white sailboat came into view as it coasted into the thin horizontal line that had been my focus. In the same moment, I began to hear the person to my right speaking Russian loudly on her phone while the couple to my left was Face Timing with their friend on speakerphone. I tried to apply my yoga and mindfulness skills in order to stay with my practice and sustain my quiet inner focus. To pretend that this was easily accessible or without frustration would be untrue for it was a daunting task! I knew that it was attainable but was I up for the challenge? Could I move out of my own way and resist the tendency towards attaching to the external sensory distractions?
In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali – the most ancient and revered sourcebook for yoga practice – the fifth limb is called Pratyahara and it means “the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses.” The practice of pratyahara remains elusive but in this stage we make an attempt to draw our awareness away from the external world without completely losing contact with it and direct our attention internally. Keenly aware of my senses while simultaneously trying to draw my awareness from the external world and cultivate a detachment from my senses, I struggled with wanting to watch the boat across the horizon and appreciate the spectacular contrast between its whiteness and the warm colours of the ocean and sky or the birds in their magnificent v-formation overhead. I heard the conversations nearby but kept returning to my breath, counting up to sixty cycles at a time in order to not to allow the input from my sense organs to create disturbance in my body or mind. And as I tried to bring the awareness to reside deep within myself I also tried to remain in a state of non-reaction in order to still the feelings of annoyance that were arising.
The practice of mindfulness provided me with the opportunity to also observe my thoughts, judgments and frustrations without attachment. Thankfully, I persevered and was able to complete my yoga practice in a satisfying way. As with everything, life on the mat is simply a microcosm of our greater experience. On the mat we practice the eight limbs of yoga, experiment and try new things and hopefully reach to our potential. As we practice pratyahara and withdraw, we can objectively observe our habits that are the ones most likely to interfere with inner growth. Deep down I know that my old habits are deeply ingrained but I also know that if I stay with the practise and commit to all that I need, new ways become clearer to see and slowly slowly, they replace the old.
Yoga has formed the fabric of my life and includes my working philosophy. It is simply a vehicle for the process of transformation. And as my practise unfolds and evolves, I continually discover more about my self and what transformation really means. Several weeks ago my teachings included bhujangasana, or cobra pose and many of the teaching points that I presented pertained to the meaning or symbolism of a snake shedding its skin. The fact that snakes can shed their skin to allow for continued growth has always fascinated me. When a snake outgrows the skin it’s in because its skin has a limited capacity for growth and enlargement, it simply sheds the outer layer and starts fresh. Encouraging my students both young and old to embody the essence of a snake, my instructions focused on helping them to execute the pose safely and to feel the essence of a snake as it slithers along the ground, rises up or sheds is skin. My intention in fostering experiential learning and facilitating group discussion about the snake and its shedding process as a metaphor and a narrative is to inspire a personal connection to the snake. In this way, increased self-awareness can occur and a deeper idiosyncratic meaning of yoga can unfold for each individual.
My ongoing exploration of the pelvic area and increased understanding of the lumbar spine, sacroiliac joints and tailbone stoked my interest in teaching bhujangasana or cobra pose. When teaching bhujangasana, many of my instructions addressed the necessary actions to engage the correct muscles in the area as well as the inner more subtle work that involved the sacrum and tailbone. While having a massage at the end of the week, my massage therapist worked deeply in the lower back area and spoke about how strong my tailbone is. I inquired if she meant the muscles surrounding it and she agreed but also stressed that my tailbone itself was strong. She reminded me that it is my base, my truth and my stabilizer, my rudder and my guide. When I clued in on Miriam’s focus, I realized the synchronicity and underlying connection between all things! With amazement and joy, I shared with her that the snake had held intrigue and fascination for me all week.
The horizon line remains even as day transforms into night. My asana or posture may be static even as my inhalation dovetails into an exhalation. Whether we focus on a symbol such as a snake shedding it’s old skin, or identify our tendency to hold onto old habits that no longer work for us, we can recognize that the change process is not simple nor is change easy. Every moment that we are awake and aware, we can observe the ongoing process of change. We can then consciously choose to remain rigid or to embrace the opportunities for change that we are presented with. For just as the snake by natural cause sheds its skin and replaces it with a new one, we too are constantly replenishing our cells in an ongoing unnoticed process in which dead cells are continuously coming off. Even if we resist the idea of change and accept that the change process has many stages and is hard, we are indeed constantly changing. And as we practice yoga and mindfulness and learn to incorporate yoga practice including the fifth limb of Pratyahara into daily life, we embrace the truth that these processes and the various challenges that we are given are truly transformative ones and give meaning and direction to our life.
Temmi Ungerman Sears
Sutra 2.55 ”Tatah parama vashyata indriyanam.”
“Through that turning inward of the organs of senses and actions also comes a supreme ability, controllability, or mastery over those senses inclining to go outward towards their objects.”