the swan : hamsasana
the subtlety of breath & the difficulties of floating in hamsasana
photo by charles green
In the Swan pose, Hamsasana, the whole body floats horizontally off the ground, supported by working the arms, wrists and hands. Even those who can master a similar pose, Mayurasana, the Peacock, are challenged by this one. Having the fingers pointing forward rather than back seems to intensify the effort.
My attempts at Hamsasana are in the early stages. It takes tremendous effort to keep my elbows in, to slowly move my legs back and even to imagine my head lifting. My arms, like toothpicks trying to hold up the weight of the world, gradually collapse and I release onto the floor with a sense of respect for the strength, balance and focus that the asana demands.
But the real magic comes when I sit and work with the mind and the subtlety of the breath, which is where my interest lies these days. I connect with the prana mantra, hamsa, the seed sound of the breath. Every exhalation sounds ham and every inhalation sa. Ham symbolizes Siva, the endless source of energy; sa, Sakti, the feminine power of manifestation. Together they flow, indivisibly united, their rhythm supporting life like the two wings of hamsa, the white bird rising above the Earth.
In the Sakta teachings, the world is the union of Siva and Sakti – the source of energy that manifests into multiplicity without losing its unity or becoming less.
“Matter itself is only a relatively stable form of cosmic energy. Because all is in movement, the world is called Jagat, or that which moves.”1
The breath is movement, movement creating sound. Concentrating on the sound of hamsa is getting in touch with the flow of life, remembering that every breath is sacred, and that I am part of this flow.
That which moves is everything knowable by a human mind. If there is something not moving, that is emanating, that is waiting for union, that is waiting to inhale back the universe in this cosmic breath of expansion/contraction – I am eager to know it. I cannot imagine stillness. Is that what happens in sunyata – not emptiness but the fullness of holding it all? But even then, will it not have to be exhaled into manifestation again?
Hamsa contains another gift. When the rhythm of sound is reversed, ham-sa becomes sa-ham. The meaning of Sa’ham is I am She. I can breathe and identify with the Goddess, with She who initiated sound by setting the world in motion. It is said that out of quiescence came a single movement, vibration or stress that began the outpouring of manifestation – layers of subtlety becoming increasingly gross until the universe formed into matter, into maya, the perception of difference and duality that we so often think of as the world.
Bringing it closer to home, Saraswati, the goddess whose vehicle is the swan, is also the Devi (power) of Speech. What do I emanate out with every breath? Thoughts vibrate out as shimmering or darkening. Thoughts thicken and become more tangible as they manifest into speech, and speech increases density again by becoming action. Sa’ham. I am She. How do I create my own world through the movements of my mind?
(1. Sir John Woodroffe, The Garland of Letters (Madras: Ganesh & Co., 2001), 70.)
how to do the pose
1 From a kneeling position with the knees apart, activate the upper back and upper arm muscles. Bring the hands onto the floor with fingers pointing toward the head and elbows bent. Keep the elbows in. The head can either be resting on the floor or lifted.
2 Gradually move the legs back, finding the place where the elbows support your body, often near the hip bones.
3 Try lifting both legs or bringing up one leg at a time. An option is to balance with your feet against a wall.
how to do hamsa breath
Sit in a relaxed upright position with the legs crossed. As you exhale, mentally hear the sound ham; silently inhale – hearing the sound sa. Reflect on hamsa, the union of energy and manifestation. Continue this focus for several minutes. Then reverse the emphasis to Sa’ham, reflecting on “I am She.”
1 Attempt the Swan pose, asking: How can I bring together my physical earthly nature and my intangible spiritual nature?
2 The mantra of the fourth chakra describes “that pair of swans who are Ham and Sa dwelling in the mind of the Great, who subsist entirely on the honey of the blooming lotus of knowledge.” What knowledge do you gain through Hamsasana or through the hamsa breath?
3 Ask: How do I create my world through the movement of my mind? Practise the ham-sa / sa’ham breath and then write your reflections.
Swami Lalitananda's latest book,The Inner Life of Asanas,is a collection of her hidden language hatha yoga columns, from timeless books . She is a resident teacher and part of the collective at radha yoga & eatery - a yoga centre, cafe, arts and events venue at 728 Main Street in Vancouver, BC. Contact her at . firstname.lastname@example.org.