Article about the yoga position “The Fish” by Heinz Grill:
The value of differentiated thinking and perception
A most essential and effective learning step in the practice of a classical yoga exercise can be that of differentiated perception, thinking and feeling. In contrast to a very generalised kind of thinking, which has developed with the aim of forming rapid views and opinions, a differentiated conception, observation and clear recognition of a phenomenon or a theme creates an uplifting and light sensitivity. The senses expand and enjoy the objects they observe and consider. Every exercise that is practised can lead the awareness to a lighter and freer ability to perceive if practitioners learn to train themselves to visualise and look in a really detailed and consistently differentiated way. Differentiated thinking increases the sensitivity of the nervous system in a positive, or better expressed, in a stabilising way. It further develops the different areas of the brain with their synaptic interconnections and ultimately stabilises the autonomic nerves.
The image of the position
The classical yoga exercise, the fish, in Sanskrit matsyasana, is probably one of the easier and still more accessible yoga exercises, which is recommended for practice both in youth and in more advancing years. To this position, which receives differing commentary in yoga texts, I would assign in particular the inner picture of differentiation and of the rising sensory joy which comes from this. The legs form a straight line in the basic position, they retain their form and yet remain relaxed, the chest arches, with the breastbone, into the furthest possible curve and as this continues the head falls backwards into the neck, completing this upwardly directed arc of tension by touching the floor with the crown of the head. The jaw, the face and even the neck remain relatively relaxed. The intentioned dynamic happens in an excellent way in the middle of the thoracic spine and between the shoulder-blades, with a strong stretch through the individual segments of the spine. As this tension continues, the neck and throat region, right through to the crown of the head, slides into the arch. It slides further, following the dynamic, without arching through its own power. This continued, gentle movement right through to the crown is interesting for our experience and can be brought into our awareness.
The inner experience in the fish
The experience in the fish can be steered specifically to this differentiated tensing in which the limb movements are formed while at the same time parts of the body are completely relaxed. Practitioners remain circumspect, alert, observing, and invest their will-energy in the central tension of the thoracic spine. Tensing, forming and relaxing meet in a growing and harmonious relationship in matsyasana. While practitioners move relatively close to the ground and the arc of tension in the upper section of the spine develops, they experience their own periphery relatively strongly and undergo an openness, which learns to feel the environment more as a sensitive touch. The opening in the fish is not to be understood in its passive form, as a vulnerable sensitivity, rather it is held and strengthened through the differentiated thinking, through mentally picturing the position or its content, and through the consciously guided observation. The more clearly differentiated and observable contents are processed in an exercise though the awareness, the more solidly both a natural openness and also an inner, centred experiencing develop, assuring a mental stability. Were the exercise to be done only in passive openness, with strong arches of the spine, a gateway to vulnerability could easily open. The activity of mental picturing, which is performed in awareness of the asana, and which for example in the fish is geared towards skilled tension and the theme of differentiation, always provides favourable conditions for the nervous system, both autonomic and central.
If practitioners successfully learn these kind of tasks, then in the fish they experience themselves in the co-called 5th cakra, in visuddha cakra, the centre at the larynx. Although this centre is not actively tensed, as the throat only continues the movement in a gentle tension, the experience develops at that region with a specific, peripheral openness, a kind of openness which consciously perceives more the surrounding atmosphere. At the same time, through the particular movement in the dynamic of the spine and through the mental activity of differentiated examining and observing, practitioners experience their own ability to steer their awareness. They become more conscious of their thinking activity, which is always connected with the process of perceiving, and their learning can ultimately advance towards a more guided and solid sensing. The fifth centre appears in its developed state not only at the larynx and at the thyroid gland, but expresses itself more peripherally, like a blooming, body-free, radiating, round, upwardly and outwardly directed formation.
Although the dynamic flows pointedly more into that section of the spine that lies close to the heart centre, i.e. the 4th centre, an experience is activated which is more characteristic of the 5th centre. Practitioners experience themselves sensitively and lightly if they can achieve the position with the right distribution of tension and with a differentiated deployment of the awareness. They experience themselves as light because through the activation of the awareness they attain a kind of freer strengthening of their mental pictures and perceptions. In reality the awareness does not come from the body itself but is only reflected via the nervous system. In its expression the awareness remains free from the nervous system.
The breathing should not be forcefully deepened in the fish. It should remain as dynamic as the tension demands and should flow lightly and freely in its rhythm. The free breathing enables a more intensive perception of the body and does not needlessly bind the awareness too intensively to the will-activities.
The therapeutic effect of the exercise
The therapeutic effects of this exercise, when it is done with differentiated awareness, are mainly what can be described by the general term “mental stabilisation”. For this mental stabilisation the autonomic nerves should not be agitated unnecessarily. Processes of perception which are consciously guided, and thought contents which are related to the exercise, actually give the individual an immediate feeling of calmness at the same time as a pleasant alertness of the awareness. The senses should not slip too far into the organ-depths of the body, in other words practitioners should not think so much of their heart organ, their liver or their digestion, rather they should direct their awareness much more to the ordered distribution of tension and gear their will energy towards a harmonious stretch through the spine. Practitioners therefore remain in a clear visualisation, which they direct to the body and do not immerse themselves too deeply into the body. They practise with their awareness and yet remain reasonably free with respect to the emotions of the body. This activity, which increases through a differentiated awareness and thinking and remains more peripheral, actually observing the location of the spine as if from outside andexperiencing the tension-distribution objectively, strengthens the cerebral cortex, and consequently, as a result of the new neural circuits, balances the autonomic system in the best and most superb sense.
Different ways of doing the fish
The spine should actually come to tighten in the thoracic region in the fish, even attaining an intensive, focused tension. Many people do not find access to this middle section and even amongst advanced yoga practitioners the tensions are often dealt with through a contraction of the lower back. Practitioners then lead the lower back into the arched curve as the primary activity and tend to encourage a lordosis. In establishing this tension not from an upper but from a lower section of the spine, they can certainly often arch very far into the position and easily reach the floor with the crown of the head. However, the distance between the deltoid muscle of the shoulder and the breastbone is then not so great and practitioners can no longer develop the exact differentiation in the tension distribution. From an energetic perspective, the activated prana energy then flows more into the second centre and accumulates quite strongly in the lower organs. Although the heart organ is experienced as open through the stretched out arch, no real centring can be developed in the thyroid gland and in the thoracic centre. In this way the central cakras cannot acquire a form of experience which stimulates them. While activating the stretch between the shoulder-blades, combined with an active consciousness of the differentiation, and perception of the various phenomena, strengthens the humoral immune system generally and even specifically, an excessive emphasis of the lower back, in the sense of a practice with too little differentiation, can in the long term weaken the immune system.
The differentiated thinking and perceiving, which is very typical for the fish and is already inherent in the picture of the exercise, at the same time encourages a body-free awareness, which is agile, enjoys sensing, and relates actively.
Variations of the fish
The fish can be practised with many different variations. The fish in the lotus position, matsyasana in padmasana, enables a very centred tension to gather through the thoracic spine. The individual positions and variations can be developed from simpler to more difficult versions. The most difficult one has to be the fish in bound lotus position. In this position the shoulder-blades are drawn together at the back in the most extreme way.
With all variations it is recommended to train the consciousness to observe in a differentiated way and also to develop clear contents to picture for the position. Nevertheless it is not a forceful fixation on achievement that should govern in the fish, but rather a thinking which is sensitive, seeing and yet supported by a clear mental picture.
Possibilities and approaches for spiritual development
Fundamentally, spirituality does not live in an asana. It would therefore be wrong if one were to assume that through merely practising physical exercises, spiritual experiences could be set free. The manner of awareness of the individuals practising enables them to consider the exercise and its content creatively, and through appropriate mental pictures this awareness can enliven, enrich and ultimately transform the body. By practising the exercise not just according to pure, technical and physical conditions, but introducing a content into these, practitioners expand their consciousness with respect to the body and create spiritual progress. For example a content might be the way the mental picture of differentiated tension develops and the way the feeling of centring and of form takes shape in the limbs, accompanied by free breath and watchful observation. Differentiated experiencing sets free joyful, bright thoughts, awakens the imaginative forces of the soul and generally lifts the consciousness above the heaviness of the body. In contrast to this experience of sensory joy, which is set free through differentiated thinking and through the fifth centre, pounding away is the sensual life, the consciousness which is so to speak bound up with the body, the dependency on the flowing bodily fluids and the moods they exude. The less differentiated observing and thinking processes take place, the more these idiosyncrasies radiating from the body prevail.
That is why it is so important for the practice of all the exercises that practitioners do not remain with those formulations which have become comfortable and usual today, like for example: “The fish opens the heart cakra” or “The shoulderstand stimulates the thyroid gland”. On the one hand these generally derived statements are not always absolutely right; they are too tenuous to uphold an objective, concrete assertion regarding health and any therapeutic effect. On the other hand these sayings are actually derived entirely from the physical dimension and leave the real, conscious activity of those practising unconsidered. Whether the fish opens the heart-cakra or whether the shoulderstand is able to stimulate the thyroid gland positively, depends on the manner in which practitioners work with the content of the respective position, and how they suffuse this position with the activity of their thought and sensitivity. It is not the asana as such that gives the health and spiritual benefits, but rather the creative involvement in the thinking, feeling and willing of the individual practising.
The following variations of the fish are divided into different levels of difficulty. To begin with, prepare by arching through the upper region of the thoracic spine and then pay attention to the observation, tension-distribution and finally to the possibility of a concrete thought and mental picture.
You will find more pictures of the fish, its variations and adjustments for these positions in a separate post.