Consider the Cactus

The other day, my fellow yogis and I were standing in virabhadrasana one, and our teacher encouraged us (as many will do) to hold our arms in whatever shape felt best. Some yogis took hands to prayer, and others interlaced their fingers and stretched their knitted hands up to the sky. In those seconds, instinct took over, and I pulled my arms into a cactus shape. I felt the stretch in the webbing between my fingers and inhaled, the breath flowing into my shoulders. Marvelous.

I feel a bit odd writing an entire post about cacti, but I think they deserve a little love. Cactus "pose" doesn’t get as much yoga street cred as something like bakasana, nor is it as iconic as adho mukha vrksasana (handstand) or pincha mayurasana (forearm stand). It doesn’t make you look like a warrior or a dolphin.  And real life cacti are lined with needles, making them seemingly unapproachable and dangerous. But underneath all of the sharpness, there’s something special about this succulent.

Let’s start with the pose. It’s a huge treat; spreading your arms into cactus allows for multiple sensations. For one, it’s a fantastic shoulder opener. When the shoulders come together, the heart, lungs, and diaphragm are all exposed. The biceps are alive and strong, and energy shoots up into the fingers, spreading into the air like fireworks. 

In Native American cultures, cacti symbolize warmth, protection, and endurance. This is because a cactus can survive in the most asperous conditions, standing strong despite the extreme heat of the desert. I remember driving East to West, and watching the fauna transform from lush, green foliage into sparse shrubs barely dotting the red mountains. The cacti had to fight for survival.  They were little reminders that life prevailed, even in the harshest habitats.  

There is a great deal of metaphor in yoga poses. Standing in tree can help you feel balanced and connected to the earth. A few moments in child’s pose emphasizes the importance of staying humble. Cactus pose, despite its tendency to blend into the background, can serve as an excellent reminder of our ability to survive.

We all go through tough times. Maybe we’ve moved to a new city, lost a loved one, or had to start over. Maybe we feel like we’re living in the desert, searching for any bit of life and nourishment to keep us sustained. In these moments, it’s good to identify with the cacti. Like our prickly brethren, we are capable of survival in the most dire of situations. Not only are we alive, but we also continue to grow.  A cactus won’t change in size too dramatically overnight. It takes months, even years, to evoke noticeable differences. People are the same way.

So the next time you’re in yoga class, consider the cactus. Open the heart. Spread the arms. Don’t be afraid to thrive.

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