Supported Fish Pose: What Being a Fish Means to Me
I’ve always been a fish. My earliest claim to fame was a feature spot on the local news when I was 6 months old; the swimming baby! I wasn’t just splashing around in teeny tiny swimmies on the water’s surface, I was swimming underwater. I’m certain now that I was not the only aquatic baby to be spotlighted by the piece, but to hear my parents and grandparents tell this story throughout my childhood, one would have assumed, as did I, that I was THE Underwater Baby.
Growing up, I was always drawn to the water, and I felt confident and free when I was in it. My mother’s instinct to enroll me in swimming lessons at a very early age was not only the catalyst for my 15 minutes of fame, but also the start of my love and appreciation for how the water could transform my sense of self, my perspective, and my mood. As a girl I attended 4H camp, where we would swim in a murky pond, long rumored to be home to a snapping turtle the size of a paddle boat. I recall learning to capsize and re-right a canoe in that same murky water, over my head, but not out of my depth. The confidence I had learned in those early days in the pool with mom translated into a sense of control in and on the water.
As a teenager, I discovered kayaking, and I was again introduced to a feeling of freedom and a sense of authority each time I picked up a paddle. I learned to navigate narrow rivers, ducking beneath low branches, and dipping my hips from side to side to adjust to the pull of the current through a patch of slight rapids. Taking the boat out into the ocean was scary at first, and my confidence was shaken a few times before I learned to trust myself and my tools, and to tune into what the water was communicating to me through the waves.
During those teenage years, many of which felt quite uncertain for one reason or another, I relied on the water as a way to soothe my feelings of inadequacy and to deal with the ever present unpredictability of family, friendships, and the future. I floated for hours in our small, above ground swimming pool in the backyard, I jumped with friends from bridges into cold rivers, and I paddled as often as I could in my banged up yellow hand-me-down kayak. Water became a coping mechanism for me. I could count on the water to focus my mind, settle my nerves, and ultimately shift my perspective when things felt too heavy to hold. The water took the weight off, and it still does to this day.
As an adult, I still rely on the water as a source of comfort, but I have cultivated additional mechanisms that provide a similar, familiar sense of control and peace, one of which is yoga. I am no yogi, in fact, I would call myself a casual practitioner at best. I can’t quite “talk the talk” when it comes to Sanskrit, the language of yoga, and I haven’t quite reached human-pretzel status, or total inner calm, but I enjoy the practice, and the benefits to my mental and physical health are undeniable.
One particular pose I am drawn to is Fish Pose, or Matsyasana in Sanskrit. I often end up in a modified version of this as a sort of Shavasana, or resting pose at the end of a class. Traditionally, it involves sitting with your legs out straight, arching your back and lifting your chest skyward, while propping yourself up on your forearms or elbows, the crown of your head on or near the floor. When I do it, it involves two yoga blocks and far less flexibility, but I still reap the benefits. This pose opens the chest, neck, and throat, stretches and strengthens the shoulders and intercostal muscles between the ribs, and stimulates the organs. And, most importantly, it just feels good.
In yoga, the many poses are accompanied by mythology that provides both context and logic for the pose itself. Fish Pose is linked to Vishnu, the Hindu God of preservation. Vishnu is said to respond to wickedness and disorder in the world by taking on the form of an avatar. The first time Vishnu incarnated, it was in response to a great flood sent to destroy the earth; his first earthly form was a fish, or Matsya. At first, he was just a small fish, but as he grew to great proportions, he revealed himself to The King as Lord Vishnu, there to save humanity. He instructed The King to build a boat and gather all of the world’s creatures and plants on board. Matsya then guided The King and his boat through the great flood, ultimately delivering them safely.
It is said that practicing Matsyasana, or Fish Pose, not only promotes the physical benefits I mentioned earlier, but it also encourages opening of the heart chakra, which is said to reduce feelings of anxiety, irritation, and contempt. In today’s never ending cycle of bad news and the ongoing threats to our health and safety, it is easy to sit in those negative emotions, to get used to feeling weighed down and stuck without a clear path forward. I often find myself feeling overwhelmed by the chaos, and in those moments, it helps to remember the story of Matsyasana. When the world feels confused and evil, we must look for what allows us to preserve what is good, not ignoring the bad, but floating above it, for our survival.
We must all work to develop and practice our own methods of preservation. It is not easy to determine what will consistently bring you joy, peace, or comfort in challenging times, but it is important to do that work. Self care is a term we throw around often, but we engage in it much more rarely. It can feel indulgent, wasteful even, to carve out time in your day to participate in activities that make you feel whole; however, doing so will ultimately help to shape the way you feel, the way you think, and the way you react to your surroundings. Being a fish, either in the water or on the mat, allows me to assert some control over how I respond to the wickedness and disorder of the world, preserving what is good today, despite the rising waters.