This posture is called Śhayanāsana. Shayana means "resting" “reclined” or “lying down” and when combined with asana it translates as something like a "relaxed stance."
Now, if you have ever tried this posture, you will know it is anything but relaxing!
The practitioner has to make her body incredibly stiff and steady in an attempt to balance on the tiny points of the elbows. It feels like the complete opposite of lying down or reclining! You have to fight gravity with everything you've got! However, I think this asana is aptly named as such to direct our thinking beyond the limitations of our human form to a more metaphysical realm.
There is a famous depiction of Vishnu situated in a reclining pose that is called: Shesha Shayana (which literally translates as: 'resting in what remains'). Here the Lord Vishnu relaxes back, lounging on a giant thousand-headed snake, Ananta Shesha (which translates as "Infinite-Shesha") also called Adishesha (the "First-Shesha"), while his consort, the beautiful goddess Lakshmi, is seated at the end of his serpent-bed massaging his feet.
Shesha is “that which remains when all else ceases to exist." It is said that at the end of time, only Shesha will abide. Although this giant naga-king appears separate from Vishnu, he is described as be both a servant and a manifestation of Vishnu himself. We find in the Bhagavadgita chapter 10, verse 29, Lord Krishna declaring, "anantaś ca asmi nāgānām" meaning “of the nagas, I am ananta.” The image of the snake in this case represents eternity, and as the great naga uncoils itself, time moves forward and creation begins; when he recoils, the universe contracts and eventually disappears.
There is a story about Adishesha coming to the Earth in the form of Patanjali, the composer of the Yoga Sutras. It is said that during a time of great suffering and adharma on the planet, all of the people began to pray to Vishnu to restore dharma - the law of goodness. Vishnu sends Ananta-shesha to reincarnate as a mortal and bring humanity the knowledge of yoga which holds the potential to end their suffering. Thus, this firstborn snake falls from the heavens as Patanjali (Pat = to fall, Anjali = mudra of devotion, "namaste" prayer-hands) revealing the teachings of yoga as an answer to their prayers.
We read in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras chapter 2 verse 47 that 'asana becomes perfectly established by balancing relaxation and effort and allowing the mind to be completely absorbed in experiencing the infinite.'
Here we find the key to cultivating a sense of ease within particularly tricky postures like Shayanasana. The mind must retract inward and begin to cultivate a sense of communion with ananta - the infinite. Our inner state must mirror that of Lord Vishnu who is resting, undisturbed, completely supported by the Timeless One. The external shape of his seat - the shesha-naga - is firm and steady, so that the Lord can relax and concentrate all of his attention on his faithful lover in the form of the goddess Lakshmi, representing prosperity and good fortune.
Sometimes in the practice of Ashtanga Yoga we find ourselves pushing and forcing, or simply trying too hard. We need to relax the effort a little more and trust that time will unfold all things organically. We could learn something from taking a more 'relaxed stance' when approaching our asana practice, directing more attention on the inner experience, discovering the nurturing qualities of love and beauty which can help us sink into a more blissful state of calm assurance.
I find myself often asking how I can make my practice both challenging and yet gentle, determined and yet soft, strong and yet graceful? How can I move beyond these dualities and embrace the possibility of finding the union of opposites within the center of my very being?
These are the questions I find interesting to explore while I'm practicing, and this is what keeps me coming back to dig a little deeper each time... the opportunity to gaze into an infinite abyss.