~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Roar Like a Lion

August 24, 2011
For most of my yoga life I've shied away from lion pose, or simhasana. Perhaps it has seemed a tad embarrassing, a little lost-in-the-seventies when adults were counseled to channel anger by punching and screaming at pillows. Or maybe the photos of those slightly frightening, scantily clad yogis practicing with their eyes wide open and their jaws ajar seemed too close to every skeptic's fear of what yoga might be like after all.

Simhasana is a simple pose in which you sit quietly on the floor, drop your jaw, thrust out your tongue, peel open your eyes as if in the throes of delirium, and then let loose with a sound that ranges from a sigh of deep exasperation to a floor-rattling roar. Yoga masters tell us that this pose releases tension in the mouth and throat, gives voice to withheld emotions, and leaves the eyes and the heart shiny and bright.

Kids, of course, love lion pose, since it is loud, ferocious and impressively expressive. They enjoy the opportunity to alternate between the quiet prelude of stalking and the shocking surprise of the roar. Through it they learn to channel their unstoppable energy in safe, albeit noisy, forms. And they are invited to practice managing and regulating their emotions constructively, rather than being ruled by them.

So perhaps I can thank my two young boys for helping me befriend my inner lioness. Like every child I've ever known, they never turn down an opportunity to practice simhasana, and will happily turn the pose into an afternoon's adventure of hunting and prowling across the African savannah.

My kids have also given me plenty of strong emotions to practice channeling through simhasana. Any mother of young children surely has a few stifled screams stuck inside somewhere, and these strong emotions do no good when left in hiding until a vulnerable moment sets them free. Sometimes it just feels good to let loose with a howl or a sigh that releases pent up energy without necessarily pinning it upon a specific person or circumstance.

Are you ready to roar? I must admit, in class I teach this pose to adults gingerly, with a tinge of shyness. Always, I instruct my students to close their eyes. If you're like me, you may want to close your bedroom door when you take your lion for a test drive. Or better yet, recruit your favorite five-year-old to show you how it's really done. All you need are a few basic instructions, which you should feel free to refine to suit your body, emotions and needs of the moment.

Sit on the ground in any comfortable position. Breathe quietly for a few moments, keeping your body soft and your awareness drawn inward.

When you're ready to vocalize, inhale through your nose, and then as you exhale drop your jaw, stick out your tongue as far as possible, and open your eyes wide. Accompany this action with a sound that suits the energy of the moment, ranging from a quiet "hahhh" to a window-shattering roar.

You may want to intensify the release by "pouncing," or shifting your weight forward and spreading the "claws" of your hands in front of you as you roar. And then when the exhalation is complete, retreat back to a quiet, internal posture, closing your mouth and eyes, relaxing your body and breathing easily through the nose. Observe the feeling and flow of energy within you as you rest quietly and breathe freely. Enjoy the calm that follows the energy's storm. If you feel the urge, repeat lion pose a few more times.

Over time, you'll refine the pose until you can practice it internally, letting out a secret, silent roar on the spot, whenever you need to release a little tension and regain a sense of balance. Try out your silent roar it in the line at the grocery store, when you're stuck at a red light, or perhaps when you're on the kitchen floor cleaning up your third spilled milk of the morning.

With kids, this pose can be varied in interesting ways by altering the intensity of the sound (silent roar, whispering roar, fierce roar, happy roar, sad roar, lost-in-the-woods roar, I-like-you roar). It's a wonderful way to help wiggly children release their energy with creativity and good humor. And as long as a few quiet breaths of stillness are included afterward (when the lion curls up and goes to sleep!), simhasana can help transition kids into a gentler activity. The exploration can be deepened by asking kids to reflect on their feelings before, during and after they roar.

Come on, don't be shy. Give it a try. Each of us has a strong and beautiful lion inside, just waiting to be set free.