Excerpts are from the book “The Stories Behind the Poses”, by Dr. Raj Balkaran, shared with permission by the author. Illustration by Devika Menon. 

Dr. Raj Balkaran will feature this and other stories at the upcoming SOYA Annual Retreat, June 2-4, 2022. We can’t wait to host him and see all of you in Sorrento! Order your own copy of his book Stories Behind the Poses here on Amazon.  You can read Mugs’ blog post featuring how to practice Matyasana here.

We know that yoga asana is a powerful tool for creating vital health in the body and the mind. When we learn the stories and lessons that underlie the asanas, this symbolic energy strengthens the yoga posture to uplift and concentrate the mind upon the divine lesson it embodies. This takes our asana practice beyond the body and mind, and into the realm of wisdom!

In his book, The Stories Behind the Poses, Dr. Balkaran shares the mythology of Matsyasana.

The story is startlingly familiar across many spiritual paths, as it tells the story of a great flood, an ark, and all of the world being destroyed with a “select few” chosen to bring it back to life.

This story is of the first incarnation of Vishnu, the Preserver. It is written in the Matsya Purana, and can also be found in the Mahabharata. It begins by sharing the importance of having reverence for all things, and the importance of extending care and compassion in life. 

Matsya, the Fish Incarnation of Vishnu

A small fish came up to a kind and pious man named Manu, and asked for protection from the larger fish that wished to eat it. Manu scooped up the fish and placed it in a pot to keep it safe. The fish grew so quickly that before long, not even the Ganges River was large enough to hold him. Manu realized this was no ordinary fish:

“Great fish,” Manu addressed him, “certainly you are no ordinary creature. Who are you, and why have you come into my care?”

“Manu, you are correct – I am no ordinary creature, “ stated the fish. “I am Matysa, Vishnu himself, incarnated as a fish to fulfill my divine purpose here on Earth.”

In caring for this tiny creature, Manu had shown his love for the Divine and in doing so allowed Matsya to come to fulfill his destiny – the preservation of the world. It is fitting to remember how this is relevant to our own lives. Have faith in the Divine, including how it manifests in our life:

“For everything there is a purpose, Manu. Every creature has its own skill. It is only as a fish that I may fulfill my divine duty to protect humankind. No other creature but a great fish can accomplish the task before me. And you have well passed your test. As a reward for your kind protection you will be protected a thousandfold.”

The fish then shared with Manu that a great flood was coming to wash the world away – it had become filled with greed and corruption and the gods had decided all must start anew. Matsya promised to keep him safe. Manu was charged with building a massive boat and to go about gathering his family, the Seven Seers (to carry on the wisdom of the Vedas) and the seeds and animals for which to repopulate the earth, following the flood. 

The rains came and Matsya appeared before the great ark Manu had built. He brought them safely through the turbulent waters to the peak of the Himalayas, which looked like a tiny island surrounded by the great flood waters. They stayed there, safe, until the waters receded. Then Vishnu appeared to them in his Divine form: 

“For protecting a tiny fish, you’ve been protected from this great deluge, Manu, first of men. Go forth and repopulate the earth, for it has been saved by my grace.”

We learn that we are protected and supported by Divine grace, and we are called to cultivate the same quality in our lives, as well:

“And most importantly, Manu, never forget to protect the imperiled as you protected me when I was a tiny fish. The imperiled, like me, are divine in flesh, and worthy of protection.”

We can add so much to our asana practices by invoking these stories within the poses. There is much more in the book about this story which finishes with this suggestion for when we are practicing Matsayasana:

“When doing this pose, remember the dharma of Vishnu: support of the world. Relax into the posture knowing you are supported by the forces of the universe, and attain a state of stability as an embodiment of Vishnu’s Matsay avatara incarnation who preserved creation through the great deluge.”

matyasana, fish pose
Dr. Raj Balkaran, author of the book The Stories Behind the Poses.

Dr. Raj Balkaran is a renowned wisdom teacher, storyteller and scholar of ancient Sanskrit narrative texts. He teaches at several online platforms including the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and at his own School of Indian Wisdom where he integrates scholarship, storytelling and spirituality to apply ancient Indian wisdom teachings to modern life. He is a spiritual adept, having received multiple initiations and having been engaged in daily spiritual practice for over two decades. Dr. Balkaran serves as McMaster University’s Chaplain of Indian Spirituality and runs a thriving private life counsel practice where he helps guide people on their journeys. He also hosts the New Books in Indian Religions podcast where he interviews academics on their cutting-edge research.  See https://rajbalkaran.com for more information.