As I write*, war is in the air. Forces are being built up. My mind is involved. Why this tragedy? What is going to happen now?
When the world starts going crazy, it feels like just the right time to retreat into my shell for a while and try coming out later.
So I practise the Tortoise pose. Sitting, bending forward, wrapping my hands around my feet, entering a warm, safe, protected world. Back curved over front, I am snug and secure, in a self-created cave—hollow, resonant, holy.
Retreating into the Tortoise, my head rests on my feet. I’m a self-contained unit, in touch with myself, without sight. In this position, I can hear my thoughts. They naturally slow down as my mind searches for that elusive place of rest. In the confines of limited movement and vision, I am content to be—not knowing it all.
The Tortoise provides a respite—time alone without worries. The quiet darkness soothes and heals. From within, a deep sigh of relaxation. I come out like a newborn hatchling, wondering. “What world is this—so bright and sharp, so airy and big?” The old anxious thoughts linger, waiting to be picked up again, but I let them go, recognizing that they are worn out and unhelpful.
I move into the pose again. Relax again. Everywhere the Tortoise goes is home. What does it mean to be at home? What is the difference between hiding out of fear and intentionally withdrawing? In this dark little place, how is it that I feel so alive? There seems to be a special quality to retreating, an experience of vibration, subtle movement, restoration. Withdrawing from the constant inflow of sensory information allows a big space, a strong place, a place of being.
Like the sea turtle plunging beneath the ocean waves to the depths where dreams arise and mantras take root, I find a deep well of a place unaffected by the emotional ruffles of the surface. It’s like finding silence in the centre of a noisy city, sitting with others and watching the breath flow in and flow out.
To show respect on the day of mourning, people around the world kept silence. Silence, intentionally practised, seems naturally respectful and profound. Many of us seek that silence of mind called “liberation” or “home,” the home that is always waiting to offer shelter, like the tortoise’s shell.
Once, long before I started practising yoga, I had a dream that the world was exploding around me. I was running, panicked, among others who were running, panicked. Suddenly I stopped and was silent, still. Everything changed. This feeling of calm is a gift that the Tortoise can offer. For me, it is the inherent wisdom in the pose.
In Eastern mythology, Vishnu, the preserving aspect of the Divine, took the form of Kurma, the Tortoise, and rescued the world by carrying it on his back above the floods. In times of stress, when much seems beyond our control, we can call on that ancient Tortoise part of ourselves to rescue us from the floods of our emotions and to preserve our intelligence.
- Take your time in warming up, contacting the tortoise’s quality of slowness. Focus on preparing, rather than aiming for results. I like to warm up my entire body with Sun Salutations, as well as working specifically with shoulder and hip openers.
- When you’re ready, come to sitting. Bring the soles of your feet together, allowing the legs to gradually release toward the floor. Continue the practice of tortoise-like patience.
- Breathe into your back and slowly bend forward from the hips, slipping your hands around your ankles and letting the head relax. Be content wherever you are, allowing the breath to help you. Feel your back like the tortoise’s shell and become aware of the space you have created and now rest within.
- To come out, relax your hands, walk the feet apart, and straighten your back. Take time to observe the effects from the Tortoise pose. You can lie on your back with knees bent to release.
- If you have very flexible shoulders, an option is to thread your arms, one at a time, under the thighs and extend them behind you. Listen to your body.
– In mythology, the tortoise is related to the sun moving across the sky, searching for a place of rest. As you practise the Tortoise, ask yourself: Will I ever find that inner place of rest?
– The sea turtle lays her eggs in the sand and leaves them to find their own way to the ocean. Some of the hatchlings make it, while many others die. Think of the turtle eggs as your own thoughts. Which of the many ideas are worth attending to? What is their nourishment?
– Chant OM as you hold the pose, feeling the resonance in your body as you create a sacred space for yourself.
Swami Lalitananda is a teacher and author of two books, including The Inner Life of Asanas. For five years, she was the director of Radha Yoga & Eatery in Vancouver, a space that embraced art, culture, yoga and community. She lived and studied with Swami Radha for over 20 years. Swami Lalitananda took sanyas in 1996 and is dedicated to making yoga accessible and significant in everyday life. She is a resident of Yasodhara Ashram.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photos: courtesy of the author