Matsyendrasana ~ Lord of the Fishes

Shiva, the destroyer, came out of a ten thousand year meditation and decided to descend Mount Kailish to visit his beloved Parvati. Parvati had a way of knowing such things and knew that he would come on this day and put together a picnic lunch and started toward the river. Shiva arrived just after she set out.

Shiva began to tell Parvati about the miraculous discovery he'd made during his many years of meditation - yoga! He explained that this was the ultimate path to union between the individual self and the Divine. While he went on and on about yoga, Parvati fretted about lunch. Shiva was confused by her apparently flippant attitude and asked her why she wasn't listening. He felt he'd made the discovery of a lifetime and that she was not interested in hearing about it. Parvati told him that of course she was interested and asked that he carry on. Shiva kept on with his discovery. What he didn't know was that Parvati already knew about yoga and in fact had been practicing for as long as she could remember. She just assumed that Shiva knew about yoga as well. She was humble, though, and let him have his moment and listened to him describe the glories of yoga.
Meanwhile, in the river, Matsya, (sanskrit for fish) was swimming by and heard Shiva speaking. Having never heard Shiva lecture on the nature of life and the universe before, he decided to listen in. Shiva continued to speak and Matsya continued to listen. As he listened, he felt the techniques and theory of yoga take hold of his body and begin to live through him. Through his perfect listening Matsya became enlightened. It was at that moment that Shiva became the first Guru (teacher) and Matsya became the first chela (student). This is a relationship that has lived on throughout the years.
When someone becomes enlightened they have the opportunity to come back to earth to help those of us who wish to be liberated in this way. Matsya is said to have come back as half human, half fish, and that through his wisdom the Hatha Yoga Pradipika was written by the Nath Yogis. Called Matsyaendranath in this incarnation, we honor him through the pose matsyendrasana. The upright torso resembles his half human side and the folded legs are representative of his fish tail. This pose keeps us connected to the strong lineage of teachers that have either directly or indirectly influenced us. As this story shows, we all have the same roots.*

To take matsyendrasana, start with the legs extended and then bring the right foot in so that it sits on top on the left thigh in toward the hip (in half lotus). The left foot will come over that bent leg so that the foot comes to the outer right knee. Next extend your left arm and place the right hand on the floor behind you. The left hand can extend down the leg to hold the ankle. The arm that is behind can come from the floor and hold the opposite side hip. Repeat on the other side. This is not a pose you typically see in a yoga class. Much more common is Ardha Matsyendrasana - half lord of the fishes. Neither of these poses should be practiced by those with back/spinal injuries or pain without the supervision of a qualified teacher.
For this pose, start with both legs extended. Fold the right foot in toward the opposite hip.

Then bend the left leg so that the foot comes to the outer right knee. The left hand comes behind the back to act as a support. How far you twist depends on you - it's extremely important to only twist as far as feels comfortable to you. The right arm will extend toward the sky and then twist your upper body and either wrap the elbow around the left knee of bring the right elbow outside the left knee. Once again, do not over-twist! As you inhale think about making more space between each vertebrae and sitting taller; as you exhale perhaps twist a little bit deeper into this pose. Hold for about 5 long deep breaths and then repeat on the other side. Remember that if you cannot comfortably breath you are likely going too far and should back out of the pose a bit. There is also a bound version of this pose, but I'll save that for another day.
This pose is excellent for digestion, brings a fresh supply of blood to the internal organs and energizes the spine. Yogis believe that we are as young as our spines are flexible!

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*Story as told in Myths of the Asanas by Alanna Kaivalya & Arjuna van der Kooij