This posture is a little known sleeping beauty waiting to be discovered, as it is one of the only yoga poses that has you lie down on your side. It is also a subtle balance asana (posture), sometimes easier for those who find standing or arm balance poses frustrating or painful.
ANANTASANA = “Ananta” is the name given to the divine serpent who is devoted to the Hindu god Vishnu. “Ananta” usually translates as “eternal,” “timeless,” “endless,” or “infinite,” because “anta” means “end,” and “an” is “without.” “Asana” refers to the posture itself; “asana” translates literally as “seat.”
This pose is often known as “Reclining Vishnu’s Pose,” but it is really named after Ananta, the serpent upon whom Vishnu rests in a yogic sleep. Hence, it is also known as “Reclining Vishnu Couch Pose.” In many ancient Hindu sculptures from India, Vishnu reclines in a posture similar to the modern-day yoga pose Anantasana, with one hand under the head, and one leg extended. (See discussion on Art History below; more information on these images within art history and their relation to Yoga Nidra/Yogic Sleep coming soon; follow our page here at AHA! Yoga to receive them.)
In terms of your physical position, Anantasana is an asymmetrical, balancing posture done while you lie on one side. Recline on into this pose for a myriad of benefits.
Physical Description, ANANTASANA How-To:
- Begin lying on your back, arms by your sides, palms facing down.
- EXHALE, turn to your left side and rest a moment, keeping that side in contact with the floor. Your legs are reaching long, and in line with your torso. Place your right hand in front of you for balance.
- INHALE as you raise your head, extend your left arm on the floor, in line with your torso and beneath your left ear. Bring your armpit a little closer to the floor.
- Then slowly bend the left elbow. As you raise your left forearm and lift your torso slightly, rest your head on your left palm. Your palm is just above your left ear. Keep that elbow and upper arm on the floor and in line with your torso and bottom leg as much as possible. Keep lengthening the left triceps and feel your side body opening.
- Stay here a few breaths, stretching out through your left armpit, all the way down through your bottom left leg as you reach through that heel. Balance your body in one straight line, as your bottom foot is flexed. Stack the right leg on top of the left, or place it slightly in front of the left leg (with right toes gently touching the floor) if balance gets too tough. Ground your left side and leg; draw your sacrum forward into your body so you stay in a straight line.
- Flex your right foot, INHALE, then bend the right knee towards your torso.
- Catch your right big toe with your right thumb and the index and middle fingers.
- EXHALE, and simultaneously stretch your right arm and leg up towards the ceiling, keeping that foot flexed and reaching through your heel. Roll your right shoulder down to prevent your chest from drooping over and forward.
- See if you can hold for 8 to 10 breaths (or 15 to 20 seconds) as you breathe evenly. It may help your balance to fix your gaze on a fixed focal point (drishti). Keep pressing through both heels. Ground the left side of your body into the floor, especially through your core and pelvic region. Check that your face, neck, and tongue are relaxed. Let your mind relax as you balance and breathe.
- To exit Anantasana, EXHALE slowly, release the right hand holding the right big toe, bend the right knee of the lifted leg towards your torso, and then as you straighten that top leg, slowly lower the lifted right foot to rest on the top of the other (left) foot, or right toes can touch the floor as that top right leg rests just in front of the bottom left leg for better balance.
- On your next EXHALE, release the support of the left palm on the head, and gently lower the head as you roll over on your back. Rest here for a few breaths.
- Now, repeat these steps on the other side, holding for the same amount of time.
Remember, Where should my awareness be?:
- Be careful not to overstretch the hamstrings, especially in the top leg.
- Keep your bottom heel, hip, and elbow in a straight line.
- When the top leg lifts, there is a tendency for the pelvis and the lower leg to roll backward; adjust this by balancing through the hip region, rather than rotating the spine.
- Watch for discomfort in the wrist that supports the head (see modification below).
- Keep a microbend in the knees if you tend to overextend, especially in the raised leg.
- Keep that lifted leg in the same plane at the bottom leg and torso (above the hip, or above the bottom leg or torso)—as if both your legs and torso were between two planes of glass—rather than letting that top fall sloop forward.
- If your buttocks stick out behind you, draw your sacrum into your body and you ground yourself through your pelvis and lengthen through the bottom leg.
Modifications, How can I make it easier and more comfortable?:
- If it is challenging to straighten your top leg, use a yoga strap. Place the strap around the ball of your foot and hold the end of the strap in your upper hand. Your grasp should be firm yet soft.
- To make balance easier, press the sole of your bottom foot into a wall. You can also imagine a sandbag or other weight resting on your bottom foot and calf to maintain alignment and stability.
- If you begin to lose your balance, put your focus on your pelvis and think of it as your anchor.
- For better alignment, balance, and overall body awareness, do Anantasana with your back body against a wall, or with a bolster between your body and the wall.
If your wrist of the hand supporting your head hurts, or the shoulder nearest the floor hurts, place that forearm onto the floor instead of holding your head. Align your elbow under that shoulder, and spread your fingers as they press into the floor. This will raise your torso up a bit higher off of the floor. Do not collapse into that shoulder, but keep that shoulder relaxed and your neck long.
- Having a hard time keeping your bottom heel, bottom leg, buttocks, torso, and lower elbow aligned together? Use the edge of your mat at a sightline.
- Balance and core strength are at the heart of this pose, so keep in mind there is no rule that your top hand must grab your toe or foot, even with a strap. Instead, first reach that top arm and hand to the sky, find your balance, then slowly lift that top leg as much as is comfortable and steady; maintain a press through both heels (see modified pose to the left). Look at the art historical examples (see image below and stay tuned and follow us for more such images in future posts)—even the mighty Vishnu did not raise that top leg!
Benefits, Why should I do this pose?:
- Improves Balance;
- Tones the Abs;
- Strengthens the core;
- Increases Hip Flexibility;
- Lengthens and strengthens the back of the legs, especially the hamstrings;
- Stretches the groins;
- Stretches sides of the trunk;
- Traditionally, is said to Improve Digestion;
- May increase blood circulation and hence oxygen levels in the heart, brain, and lower body;
- May relieve some backaches, particularly low back pain;
- As with all balance postures, the process of the pose encourages calm, a clear mind, and concentration, which often reduce stress, anxiety, and mental fatigue.
Contraindications, What precautions should I take, or when should I not do this pose?:
- Avoid if you have neck or shoulder pain;
- May aggravate headaches or diarrhea;
- Be very cautious and practice only under a health care professional or certified Yoga Therapist if you have Sciatica, Slipped Disc, or Spondylitis.
Preparatory Poses, to do before practicing Anantasana:
Parighasana (Gate Pose); Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Big Toe Pose); and Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose)
Counter Poses, to do after practicing Anantasana:
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog); Dandasana (Staff Pose); or Danurasana (Bow Pose)
Role in overall Sādhanā Practice: How will this help me improve?: According to Leslie Kaminoff, internationally known yoga teacher and author whose specialty is the breath, Anantasana is a unique yoga pose. As one of the only side-lying postures, it affects each of the lungs differently. Lying on your side causes asymmetrical diaphragmatic movement and pressure; hence, practicing Anantasana interrupts breathing habits and therefore may enhance your pranayama (breathing techniques). It may help people who favor sleeping on only one of their sides.
This is also a great preparatory pose to stretch the side body, gain core strength, and increase awareness of the side body, all elements needed for Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon) and Vasisthasana (Side Plank).
Taking it further, How can I deepen my pose?:
If you want to take Anantasana further, gently draw your lifted leg more towards your torso (rather than a right angle from your body), so long as this is comfortable and you maintain your balance. Note again that you are not hyper-extending that top knee.
Art History, Literature, and Symbolism: What are some fun facts about this pose?:
Anantasana is also known as “Eternal One’s Pose,” since “Ananta” also means “eternal.” Ananta is also known as “Śeşa” or “Adishesha,” first (or king) of all snakes. In Sanskrit, “Sesha” also means “remainder,” reflecting the notion that this being lives even after creation ceases. It is said in Hindu texts called the Puraanas that the snake named Ananta lives beyond past, present, and future in an other-worldly existence. Ananta lives forever on the primeval ocean of all possibility, the cosmic waters.
In Hindu mythology, this image harkens from the story of the God Vishnu, at a certain phase in cyclical time. It is through Ananta that Vishnu and others are awakened, to begin the cycle of creation. Here, Vishnu rests in a special type of yogic sleep (Yoga Nidra). He lies upon the devoted snake Ananta, serving Vishnu like a couch.
A famous large bas-relief sculpture, made out of Stone during the 6th century CE, and located on the south wall of the Vishnu Temple in Deogarh, is commonly called “Vishnu reclining on the serpent Ananta.” It is from this and similar images that the yoga posture Anantasana gets its name.
Like a startling yet beautiful and beneficial venomless snake, the appearance of this pose is a bit deceptive. Anantasana looks easy, but don’t be fooled; keep in mind that Vishnu lies on Ananta, who coils himself upon waters of possibility. As a balance pose, at times it will feel like you are also trying to remain still upon churning waters. Ground yourself and make subtle adjustments so you, too, can feel at ease, composed, and ready to create.
Apply this information to stretch your mind and body, and try this reclining balance and side lengthener at your next yoga class.
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