In the Mahabharata, when Arjuna is exercising his art of archery, Bhisma, his teacher, asks him to focus on the eye of a distant bird. Arjuna, the master archer, sees nothing else the rest of the world disappears and his arrow flies precisely to the target.
The art of archery is a perfect metaphor for training the mind. The archer has to be relaxed and concentrated. The bow itself must be strong yet flexible, and it is through tension and letting go that the arrow can fly straight and true to its target.
I find the Bow pose is a wonderful exercise for developing concentration and engaging the will. The kind of strenuous movement it demands does not just happen; we have to put in the effort. We have to want to do it. In the same way, if we want to become an instrument for the Divine we have to put in the effort. We have to be willing to put ourselves under pressure. Yoga is often equated with relaxing. Equally, it should be known as demanding. If the ultimate goal of yoga is cosmic consciousness or union with the Divine, why should we expect it to be easy? We have to be shaped into something that the Divine can really use.
I always had an untested ideal of service. When I was given the opportunity to be an assistant to my teacher in the last years of her life, it was like an answer to my deepest prayers. I entered the position with goodwill and love. Her duty as a teacher, of course, was to help me see and overcome my weaknesses so I could be free. Because she had a limited time, the pressure was on. At times I felt that I was nothing but my weaknesses, but I recognized even that as just another self-pitying thought. I had a choice: to accept the challenge or to stay stuck in my old ways.
This particular period of my life remains vibrantly alive for me because I learned what it takes to put an ideal into action. I learned what the spiritual path really demands and how my agile mind, coupled with aroused emotions, can trick me into justifying limitations and defending old comfort zones. I can now see pressure as an ally to concentration and ultimately to surrender. By being under pressure to face my self – my self-will, my selfishness, my obstacles to service – I learned that I could change. Even my weaknesses are not permanent.
I think about the bow and how it is created from a strong but flexible piece of wood, tempered and shaped to serve its purpose. What is my purpose?
"Are you determined to get there?" she asked one day.
"Then you will."
In the Bow pose, I ask myself again, What is my target? In the far distance, I see the target as the examples of people who have lived the Teachings, manifesting their promises by selflessly being present for the good of others. The nearer target, the one I aim for now, is offering to the Divine all that I am – my will and surrender, my tension and relaxation, my resistance and willingness – with the desire that I become an instrument to be used in a way that is worthwhile.
After practising the Bow, the world looks sharp, clear, defined. The pose adds to my determination, my purpose. I walk toward my destination, knowing what I have to do and ready to do it.
how to do dhanurasana: the bow
- Take time to warm up your whole body before doing the Bow – especially extending your spine. You can also work with specific upper thigh stretches and shoulder/chest openers. Communicate with your body the need for both strength and flexibility.
- I also use the Divine Light Invocation, a spiritual practice that focuses on tension and relaxation, breath and visualization, to warm up both the body and the mind.
Note: If you cannot reach your ankles, you may want to try bending your knees, firming your buttocks and stretching back just one arm at a time toward your ankle. Or exercise your concentration by visualizing yourself doing the pose.
- Start by lying face down on your mat and stretching out your whole body. Awaken your body's intelligence and prepare for the back bend by creating length and space so the movement is free.
- Slowly, in a cobra-like movement, lift your head and shoulders off the floor, reach your arms back and firmly clasp your ankles with your hands.
- As you lift upward, be aware of the foundation of the pose: Where is the pressure down? What allows the lift up?
- Tighten the buttocks. Feel all the movements of your body as your hands pull your legs toward your head: thighs pull away from the floor, chest lifts up, eyes look forward, back bends.
- Visualize your spine curved like a bow, your arms stretching like the bow's string.
- Breathe and hold the pose, feeling into it.
- Release down and move into the Child's pose.
- Ask yourself: What is my target? Is there a main target in the distance and intermediate ones closer by?
- How do I combine strength and flexibility to become a useful instrument?
- As you bend backwards, ask: When is enough truly enough?
See ascent issue 1 (1999), for instructions for the Divine Light Invocation. Or see The Divine Light Invocation by Swami Sivananda Radha, Timeless Books 2001.