The Tarot Muse
Carolyn R. Guss
Certified Professional Tarot Reader and Teacher

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Headstand, Hanged Man, and Tree—

 by Carolyn R. Guss, The Tarot Muse ©

first published in Yoga Living magazine, January/February 2003

Part I of a two-part article exploring the Hanged Man card and its connections to Yoga


        It has long seemed to me that the Tarot’s Hanged Man card resembles the classic Yogic posture Headstand (Sirshasana; the name comes from the word sirsa, meaning head). It was, however, a friend who noted, when the Hanged Man turned up in her reading, “It’s like the Yoga posture Tree” (Vrksasana, with Vrk meaning tree). Thus, I began to seriously consider the connection between these Eastern asanas and the Western Tarot tradition’s most enigmatic card.

          The Hanged Man is trump #12 in the Tarot’s Major Arcana, a cluster of 22 cards (within a deck of 78) that serves as the archetypal or “soul” energies of the deck. The card depicts a man hanging by one ankle from a tree or wooden frame, with his arms bent at the elbows and his free leg crossed behind the other thigh. It signifies, briefly, release of ego, voluntary surrender, willingness to suspend control, and a non-attachment to outcome. In short, it is a very Zen-like card: one of the tenets of Zen Buddhism being to live in the moment, the present, which is all that we really have. It also, in a reading, can suggest quietly magical alterations in the way we do things—again, though, for the sake of experiment and growth, without expecting a prescribed result.

          The Hanged Man suspends himself willingly from a living tree, in order to surrender, as Rachel Pollack says in The Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, “to the rhythms of life.” His hands, in many versions of the card, are hidden behind him, signifying release of control. Although a human figure, the Hanged Man might as well be a sloth or a bat, an opossum or a kinkajou. He is, for a time, at home in his silly posture.

          But why? Pollack says that the Hanged Man “hints of great truths in a simple design,” whereas Arthur Edward Waite, in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, deems it “a card of profound significance, but all the significance is veiled.” The medieval alchemists felt that standing on one’s head allowed gravity to pull energy from the genitals to the brain, thus transforming the energy of desire into spiritual energy, just as the ancient yogis felt that such a reversed position creates renewal and radiance within the individual. In modern terms it is thought that, as Pollack describes it, “reversal of physical posture serves as a direct symbol of the reversal of attitude and experience that comes through spiritual awakening.”

          In Yoga’s Sirshasana (Headstand posture) the practitioner’s head and feet are reversed. The arms form a triangle on the floor, supporting the head, just as those of Tarot’s Hanged Man take a similar shape when viewed in alignment with his head: that of a downward-pointing, or feminine/water triangle (a concept determined by the alchemists). A second, upward-pointing, or masculine/fire triangle appears from his groin to his elbows. Laid atop each other these two form what we now call the Star of David, although the symbol actually reaches back to ancient India, where it stood for the perpetual sexual union of Hindu gods Shiva and Kali—a joining that was supposed to maintain life in the universe.

          When studying the Hanged Man image, we notice that the tree is shaped like the letter T. This also forms the lower half of the Egyptian ankh, which is sometimes called a Tau cross after the Greek letter tau or T, a possible link to a Druidic tree god, Thau.

In Yoga’s Vrksasana (Tree posture), the practitioner places her foot inside her upper thigh with toes pointing downward, her leg forming a stylized number 4, not unlike the Hanged Man’s limbs. The individual balances on one foot and focuses on her midline, where a current of energy running through the body can offer tranquility, peace, and harmony as chakras become aligned. She brings her palms together in front of her sternum, fingers pointing upward in a traditional namaste gesture, as she gazes straight ahead. The practitioner may choose to extend the asana by raising her arms overhead, elbows bent and palms still touching. This pose simulates the tree itself, with roots grounded in earth and branches reaching into the sky.

A. E. Waite calls our attention to three “keys” to understanding the Hanged Man. 1) The figure hangs from a tree of living wood; 2) his face expresses entrancement, not suffering; 3) he represents life in suspension, not death. Indeed, the tree represents the Tree of Life  or World Tree, which begins with its roots in the underworld (or unconscious); reaches into the physical world (conscious mind); and upward to heaven (superconscious). The Hanged Man in his conscious state willingly suspends himself between underworld and heaven. His arms bent at the elbows, he gazes straight ahead, usually with eyes open, sometimes closed. He is balanced, in perfect alignment with the tree from which he hangs. The only difference being that the Hanged Man is doing his Tree posture in reverse, which is where that Headstand comes in!

And indeed, in many versions of the card a glowing aura emanates from the Hanged Man’s head. This suspended figure is radiant and at peace—just as B.K.S. Iyengar states, in his book Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health, “After a session of yoga, the mind becomes tranquil and passive.”