Go Fish (The Slow Miracle of My Yoga Practice)

by Maria Theresa Maggi on June 16, 2017

Koi, chalk pastel, by Maria Theresa Maggi

One of my favorite things about my yoga practice is the way it surprises me each morning during my time on the mat. I’ve written before about how that mat feels like a magic carpet ride at times, and the time I am about to tell you about is no exception. Yet instead of the far reaches of my mind or the universe, this surprise came more along the lines of Ram Daas and his famous words “wherever you go, there you are.”

Since I’m not a pro at perfect form by any stretch of the imagination, my efforts in poses often come in through a side window or a back door. One of those is my innate curiosity about how a pose got its common name. Always, when I think of such things, I inadvertently pull my  mouth back toward my ears (otherwise known as “smiling”) and correspondingly my chest expands, making even the most humble or brief attempt at a pose ever so satisfying because then I have truly breathed into it without effort. It doesn’t matter to me how long or short the duration of this experience is; the point is to feel the relaxation and expansion in my body (and spirit).

Fish pose is one of those poses that really sparks my imagination. For the life of me, I somehow “get” that looking at things upsidedown somehow makes a fish face, and perhaps my arms are fins–or if I do the version where my legs are in full lotus, then my legs are somehow the back gills or one big fancy tail. How I know this is a mystery, and feels quite ridiculous, which makes those corners of my mouth head toward my ears and my chest open up yet again.

One of my favorite childhood reads was Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, in particular “The Cat That Walked by Himself” and “The Elephant’s Child,” as told by Sterling Holloway on an old LP that we played until it was so scratched you could barely hear the words. But by that time I knew them so well it hardly mattered they were being obscured.

So it was in that playful spirit that I decided to go ask the internet one morning how the fish pose got its name. And what I came up with did truly surprise and delight me, which is, as I have often said, my favorite state of being. At this page, The Mythology Behind Matsyasana (Fish Pose), I giggled to realize for me this myth echoes both the biblical flood story, and the Dr. Seuss book “A Fish Out of Water”–(or more likely, Dr. Seuss was tapping into that ancient narrative). Lord Vishnu, disguised as a little fish, asks to be taken home by a good king, and then keeps growing out of her containers. When she reveals herself to be Lord Vishnu, she warns the king that a great flood is coming. But unlike in the Biblical Flood Story, the inventory for what should be brought on the boat is more in the spirit of minimalism. Seeds from all the plants in the world and the subtle bodies of all the world’s creatures, and, of course, the Vedic texts.

The compact nature of the cargo that gets carried into the new world in this story indeed reminds me that good things come in small packages, or the start of something large and significant is often seemingly quite insignificant and small, even invisible. Or that maybe no matter what changes on the outside, my essential self remains no matter where I end up.

Some mornings it’s much easier than others, though, to sit on the top of my head, shoulders up, looking “behind” me. Some mornings I’m in full swing and others I’m only there for a few seconds–usually the morning after I was in full swing the morning before.

This is true of almost every pose that requires some balancing or unusual positioning. I know it, and yet it’s still hard for my heart not to fall just a tad when it’s one of those mornings where I just can’t “get it” for very long.  No matter what morning it is, the part about putting the top of my head on the floor always gives me a little bit of pause. In my house here at the coast, there’s an added dimension to this involving sliding glass doors on the bedroom closet, behind where I usually place my yoga mat. Any posture I do that involves turning or looking back may find me staring right at myself. I know the mirror is there; nevertheless it’s always a bit of a startling surprise.

One morning several weeks ago, I was facing front, toward my bedroom window, where, when I attempt to balance in tree pose, I get some energetic tutoring from the hemlock and alder just outside. If I look at the trees, I somehow “feel” their encouragement to stay centered, especially when I am attempting to balance o my right foot, the one affected by the mild cerebral palsy. One morning in particular, for just a flash, the alder seemed to send me a message about the stability of a tree trunk. I felt what it is like in my own trunk, to have the strength of a tree trunk, and how my toes and the bottom of my foot were like “roots.” It only lasted  a flash, but after that I have always felt that when I look out the window during my practice and see and feel those trees against the morning sky, I am not doing yoga alone, but with friends.

So I guess it might make it even a little more uncertain to get down on the mat and upend the crown of my head onto the mat, seeing instead what is behind me (my clothes and whatever else has collected on the closet floor, since I’m terrible at closing doors) rather than the trees and the sky before me I often use as reference points to help me ground. So imagine my surprise one morning when I brought my head back above my arms to rest the crown of my head on the matt, only to discover that the closet door was closed, andpositioned in such a way that the scene in it I saw of the reflected window was exactly the same scene of tree trunks, branches and sky I had left behind when I finished my standing poses. Only I could also see myself, so thrilled to be seeing it upside down, which in the amazing way of paradox, made it right side up.

For weeks I have struggled to finish this post, to explain what that felt like, and why it was so very significant, almost like being reminded that I won’t die until it’s my time to die. I still am not sure how to say it, but it blossomed along the lines of something I have long  maintained: that I’d much rather be surprised and enlightened than “right.” “Right” doesn’t have that sense of expansiveness or  even confirmation that can come with a new revelation. Sometimes a revelation returns me to the comfort of something I know I can rely on, and trust. I just don’t know I’m going to get there until I do.

Perhaps, too, there’s a physiological piece to this experience, born of my years of low fat plant based eating. I never know when I bend over or turn around how long it will take my nervous system to “catch up” to where I have moved myself in space. There’s always a little lag. That’s why it’s important to go slowly, or to put a hand on Cotton or Romeo as I re-establish where I am in space. In the past it has been treacherous to hurry that, especially if it’s hot. I could fall, or even lose consciousness if I rush. So the “pause” that comes when I turn my head back and upside down is expected. But what wasn’t expected was to see reflected back to me everything I needed to recognize and get my bearings. Not only that, but I was able to recognize it while my head was back at an angle and upside down. I wasn’t stuck in trying to figure out where I was now that I was upside down; in fact I was so delighted to see myself and the trees that it felt like I was right side up. After having lived a lot of the last two decades moving in space as if I’m groping my way through a darkened room just to get from point A to point B, that’s pretty amazing, even if my form is in the toilet or I can only hold it for a minute. That “speed” of recognition only began to improve when I changed the way I eat so many years ago, and it keeps showing up in the most unlikely moments, even when I worry it’s not what it used to be because I’m so busy adapting to all my new surroundings and stimulation.

So much is topsy turvy these days in both our personal lives, the nation, and the world. I found it unexpectedly comforting that looking at myself in the mirror upside down nevertheless allowed me to see that same background of trees and light was not only still there, but immediately recognizable, and continued to give me good vibes through its reflection. It definitely was a “wherever I go, there I am” moment. But most importantly it was one in which I knew that even when things get turned upside down, and even when I do, the light of recognition can dawn in the midst of it.


Maria (moonwatcher)







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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Colleen June 17, 2017 at 12:53 pm

Yes, yes, yes. I often say that one of the gifts of dyslexia is that one learns young that it is o.k. to make mistakes, be wildly different from one’s peers and if not delight in shifting perception, at least befriend it. If dyslexics don’t do that they have a very hard time getting out of bed in the morning, let alone walking out the door to face the world. That sense of everything being the way it is supposed to be, even when you or your perception is upside down, is one of the most comforting and even exalted feelings I know. Thank you for sharing your experience of it with us.


2 Maria Theresa Maggi June 17, 2017 at 1:36 pm

Thank you so much, Colleen! It’s a difficult experience to articulate. I don’t have dyslexia, but I very much like knowing what I tried to describe is what people with it go through on a daily basis. That makes so much sense. It’s wonderful to read in your words that others feel this way and that I succeeded in describing it!


3 Gena June 21, 2017 at 3:15 am

What a grounding and comforting post. I love this phrasing:

“Sometimes a revelation returns me to the comfort of something I know I can rely on, and trust. I just don’t know I’m going to get there until I do.”

I don’t always find it easy to trust myself, but experience during uprooted and emotionally tumultuous times continues to show me that I’m fundamentally rooted and held in space. Somehow this post and your sentiment above seems to articulate that idea, for me–the idea that, through putting ourselves into disorienting or difficult positions, we might return to a place where we become reacquainted with our own steadiness.



4 Maria Theresa Maggi June 21, 2017 at 1:42 pm

Wow, Gena, thank you!! In your last sentence you were able to articulate what I hoped to say even better than I could have written myself! I really struggled with articulating this one, so I’m glad it did resonate in some way. And the phrasing that you loved–well, that made me feel like yes, okay, this is exactly what I mean, even if it sounds weird. I SO appreciate your thoughtful comments and how they resonate in your own life. xo


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