Mythology and Symbolism
In Indian mythology, the cosmic ocean was once churned by the Devas (the divine beings) and the Asuras (the demons), whose collective strength was needed to extract the divine nectar. The mount Mandara was used as the churning pole and the snake Vasuki was used as the churning rope. It is said that Lord Vishnu took the avatar of a tortoise (Kurma) to support mount Mandara.
The churning of the ocean, as one can imagine, is a cataclysmic event. Many things divine and deadly emerged from the churning. The tortoise was unflinching in the presence of it all.
2. The Pose
Kurmasa or the tortoise pose comes in the 1st series of Ashtanga Yoga. It is a challenging pose and requires a good deal of flexibility. Its variant, Supta Kurmasana, or the reclining tortoise (i.e. the tortoise with limbs withdrawn) pose, is even more challenging. It requires one to relax and let go of panic even when one is in a bound up and contorted posture. It symbolizes the equanimity of Lord Vishnu when there is cataclysm around.
Moving from Kurmasana to Supta Kurmasana symbolizes the withdrawl from sense objects. This is denoted by the 5th limb of Ashtanga Yoga called Pratyahara. Pratyahara -Prati (weaning) + Aahara (food)- is the weaning away of food for the senses. The Yoga sutras 2.54 and 2.55 talk about Pratyahara. This withdrawl of the senses is significant in that, yoga, at that point becomes an internal practice from an external one.
When the senses lose contact with their own sense objects and act as if there are resembling the true nature of the mind, it is called Pratyahara.
The next time you do Kurmasana contemplate its spiritual significance.