This summer, while driving on a sandy road near the beach, I saw a turtle trying to cross. I stopped, got out and walked over to the creature. As I bent down to pick it up and help it along to the other side, its head and limbs immediately retreated. I held it at arms’ length because turtles can nip and sometimes pee when they are scared.
Back home, months later, I am reflecting on the turtle, tortoises and their kind as I huddle in my New York apartment and prepare for winter.
Tortoises are like two animals in one…slow and lumbering on land, swift and nimble in the sea. They are an ancient breed and span two worlds…the sea and the shore. Their shell hardens in the cold and softens in springtime. They can live to be quite old.
They have an important place in many mythologies. The Lenape Tribe thought the Great Spirit created their homeland by placing it on the back of a giant tortoise. Japanese beliefs hold that the tortoise symbolizes support as well as good luck and longevity. The Black Tortoise of China is one of the “Four Fabulous Animals.” It rules the North, the winter and the water.
In Hindu mythology, the tortoise is an avatar of Vishnu and supports Mount Mandara as the devas andasuras churn the ocean to obtain amrita…the elixir of immortality.
In yoga class we take the pose, kurmasana. B.K.S. Iyengar writes in Light on Yoga that the final version of the pose is “sacred to the yogi.” He suggests that the Bhagavad Gita says “When, again as a tortoise draws its limbs in on all sides, he withdraws his senses from the objects of sense, and then his understanding is well-poised.”
It is a pose that is practiced as part of the asana sequence in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and prepares the body for the 5th limb of yoga, pratyahara, the withdrawal of the senses.
When I practice pratyahara I am trying to not remove my senses but stop them from being influenced by people and objects outside my own shell, my own container. It makes me stronger and wiser. It stops me from nipping and peeing on others.
Practicing kurmasana is like being a turtle living on the shore. It prepares me for the freedom of water where I can swim and each one of my senses is fully alive with possibility. That inward and outward flow is the rhythm of the world and it’s perhaps why the idea of the turtle carries such deep meaning.
No wonder I helped the turtle cross the road. Its back supported me.