Twist and Soar
When I decided to start surfing a few months ago, friends said, "Oh, you're a yogini, it'll be no problem." But the first time I tried to stand on my board, I flailed, freaked, and wiped out like a true beginner. It took months to develop even a little comfort up there. But that's one of the reasons I love learning this new sport. Exploring a realm in which I'm a complete newbie gives me the chance to enjoy the transition from awkwardness to embodied grace, from fragmentation to wholeness. It's also an exhilarating way to experience the process of yoga.
When I first got on the board, I had to concentrate on each individual action in order to balance on a wave. Now, movement is starting to come more naturally and my consciousness is able to disperse itself throughout my entire body. I can still feel awkward at times, but I am beginning to tap into the rhythm of catching a wave, and I can feel the yoga happening.
Deepak Chopra, a leader in the field of mind-body medicine, describes this yogic process as moving from a local view to global intelligence. It's something we often experience in yoga, and Visvamitrasana (Visvamitra's Pose) is an ideal pose in which to play with this visceral shift from local to global consciousness.
Named after an ambitious king who transformed himself into a yogic sage, Visvamitrasana is a complex asana: It's an arm balance, hip opener, shoulder opener, hamstring stretch, and twist, all in one. As you practice it, you'll notice—just as I did with surfing—that you start by focusing on separate parts of your body, which inhibits your balance, rhythm, and flow. But with dedication, all of the seemingly separate parts and actions will come together, and the energy of the asana will come alive.
Before You Begin
Visvamitrasana is something to save for the peak of your yoga practice. It's important that you thoroughly warm up your hamstrings, hips, shoulders, and side waist before going into the pose. Try a warm-up sequence that includes the following: Sun Salutations, Trikonasana (Triangle), Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose), Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II), Malasana (Garland Pose), and Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend). Prepare for the arm balance with Tolasana (Scale Pose) and Bhujapidasana (Shoulder-Pressing Pose).
In this variation, you'll experience the shape of the pose without the heat and challenge of the arm balance. I discovered it while practicing at home with my cat Choochie nearby, and I will never forget the feline relaxation I felt. But before you begin, consider yourself forewarned: This asana requires you to move in ways that may cause you to feel like a pretzel. Be patient and allow yourself to develop the mind-body awareness you need to do it. The pose will also give you feedback on the range of motion in your hamstrings, hips, and torso, so move slowly and respectfully as those areas warm up.
First, lie on your back and lengthen your spine by moving your feet and the crown of your head away from each other. Reach through your left heel as you bend your right knee and pull it up toward your chest. Slowly extend your right leg up toward the sky in Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose). If your hamstrings feel tight, bend your knee slightly and stay here at the first stage of this pose.
Otherwise, move into the second stage by reaching across your body and taking hold of the outside of your right foot with your left hand. Now, draw your right arm to the left through the hole formed by your left arm and right leg (don't say I didn't warn you about this pretzel moment). Roll onto your left side and place your right fingertips on the floor for support. To complete the shape, slip your head onto your left upper arm, which will require you to extend your right leg out to the side and up toward your ear. If you feel off balance, bend your left leg.
To simulate the feeling of the full Visvamitrasana, fully extend your right leg by pressing your right foot into your left hand, but listen to your hamstrings and don't overstretch. Roll your right hip under so that your tailbone points toward your back heel. Your whole body should be on the same plane. Keep your sacrum broad: You shouldn't feel any compression in your lower back. Relax the weight of your head into your left arm and notice that as your arm presses into the earth, your leg stretches even more and extends toward the crown of your head.
This pose is an incredible stress reliever. Opening the side waist releases tension in the intercostal muscles (the muscles that connect the ribs), which often contract when you're under stress. Relaxing your head and neck empties your "thinking mind," which often fidgets and tinkers with ideas of what to do with particular parts of the body.
Stay here, enjoying the tide of your breath. As you inhale, lengthen your legs and spine. As you exhale, allow the weight of your head to invoke relaxation. If you can find rhythm through your breathing, you are on your way to tapping into global intelligence, where consciousness spreads through every cell. After 5 to 10 breaths, release and do this pose on the other side.
The challenge in this variation is to take what you just learned and add a movement: the shoulder-pressing action, which you find in the arm balance Bhujapidasana (Shoulder-Pressing Pose). When calling on this type of work in other poses, I call this action bhujapida (shoulder pressing) because you create a lever by pressing your upper thighs against the shoulders and pressing your shoulders against the upper thighs. The lever will help you lift your hips off the floor.
Start by sitting in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). Keep your left leg as it is and cradle your right leg with both hands, drawing it toward your chest as though you were holding a baby. Moving from your hip joint—not your knee—draw your right leg further to the right and back until you can slip your leg over your right shoulder. Place your right fingertips on the ground to keep you steady. If this is a struggle, return to cradling your right leg and work on opening your hips while your spine stays long.
Now it's time for some of that bhujapida action. To open your hip further, press your right shoulder against your knee. Now press the back of your knee against your shoulder to steady your upper thigh. Notice how the pressing action allows you to elongate your spine. But if you've lost your lightness of being, relax and create a spontaneous puppet show (and some much-needed levity) by animating your right foot.
Now, as you did in Supta Visvamitrasana, take your outer right foot with your left hand and slowly extend your leg as straight as it will go without strain. Then add a twist: Anchor your sitting bones to the earth, activate the bhujapida action, and elongate your spine as you inhale. As you exhale, move your right side waist toward your navel and your navel to the left side waist. Your whole torso will follow as you elegantly twist toward the sky.
Keep your sacrum stable and move from your waist. Feel as though you are wringing out your kidneys and your belly, which will gently stimulate circulation to those areas and facilitate a deeper release through your vertebrae. If you can combine the bhujapida action with the side twist, the cumulative effect will feel like one great "Ahhhh," like opening a window to bring fresh prana into your body. If, however, you feel as if you are wrestling an alligator, bend your right leg and focus on your breath, breathing from the base of the body up through the crown of the head. After 5 to 10 breaths, release and move to the other side.
Eka Pada Koundinyasana II
Let the arm-balance games begin. To prepare for this intermediate arm balance, come into a high lunge with your right leg forward and your left leg pressing back. See that your right knee is directly over your ankle, and that you are on the ball of your back foot. Inhale and draw your awareness to the center of your body—the space between your pubic bone and navel. Exhale and radiate your energy forward through your right knee, back through your left heel, down through your right hip, and up through the back of your left leg. I call this the "four movements" lunge. It helps you spread your energy evenly through your lower body—a skill you will need in the arm balance.
Next, you'll add the bhujapida action. From the lunge, fold forward and reach your right arm underneath your right leg until you can hold your ankle with both hands. Take your right shoulder as far as possible under your right leg. (Remember the suggested hip-and shoulder-opening poses from the "Before You Begin" section? If you didn't do them, you might want to now.)
Place your hands on either side of your right foot. Now flare both elbows out so that your arms are at right angles to the floor. Press your hands firmly into the earth and initiate the bhujapida action between your right shoulder and thigh. Isometrically draw your right heel toward your pelvic floor. You'll feel your lower belly and your pelvic floor lift into Mula Bandha (Root Lock), which will make your whole body lighter. Using Mula Bandha, try to extend the right leg. Press through the balls of both your front and back feet and feel the energy extend through your body. Stay buoyant through your center to prevent sitting on your wrists. For the final stage, shift your weight forward, and your back leg will begin to lift off the ground. Bring the weight of your torso onto your left elbow. Amplify the bhujapida action, and you'll get even lighter.
As you develop the mind-body awareness you need for this intense arm-balance, you may find yourself enjoying—as I did in surfing—a total wipeout. If an awkward, crumpled fall seems imminent, try supporting some of the weight of your torso on your left elbow or just shift your weight back to the lunge. To exit, step back into Downward-Facing Dog Pose or swing the right leg back to Plank Pose and go through a vinyasa. Then step the left foot forward to do the other side.
Now it's time to put the pieces together. This is close to the full version, except that you'll have your back knee on the floor for support. Come into the high lunge, with your right shoulder underneath your right knee, as you did in the preparation for Eka Pada Koundinyasana. Bring your left knee to the earth, keeping your left foot in line with your left knee. Apply the bhujapida action by pressing your shoulder and leg together. Lift your right heel toward the pelvic floor. Take the outside of your right foot with your left hand, then bring your torso through your arms, rolling your right ribs forward and your left ribs back into a twist. Keep pressing your shoulder and leg together to steady the lever of your upper thighs. If the lever is steady, you can extend and twist more easily.
At this point, you may start to sink like the Titanic. As you begin to lift up, you may feel yourself teetering or slumped over your front leg. If this is the case, press down through your supporting hand and reactivate the lift of your pelvic floor.
This pose provides a perfect opportunity to experience your global intelligence. Rather than focus on all of the individual actions you've learned, sense the asana as a whole symphony. As soon as you feel weight in your wrists, pull the energy up from your hands and engage Mula Bandha. Press your right foot into your left hand and extend your leg in slow motion so you can really feel what's happening.
Once you extend your leg, start to activate the twist. You'll know you've entered the full pose when your whole body feels as though it's working together—not just the physical body, but your breath, awareness, sensations, and emotions. Lengthen your neck and gaze in the direction of your twist. After 5 to 10 breaths, rest in Pada Hastasana (Foot-to-Hand Pose) as a counterpose for the wrist and twist. Then repeat on the other side.
And now, the whole pose. If you've been working slowly, creating new body-mind awareness and respecting your limits, the full pose will eventually emerge effortlessly. I remember the first time I watched a butterfly come out of its cocoon. I was shocked that it took several days for the wings to dry and for the butterfly to feel its new form. That's a great example of the kind of patience you can cultivate with Visvamitrasana. Wait for the pose to come to you. It is a product of your own evolution and, like many other breakthroughs, often happens unexpectedly, with no one around to witness it.
You've already practiced all the steps to allow this pose to unfold. The final step is to extend your back leg instead of keeping it on the floor for support. From the high lunge, turn your left foot out and press the outer edge down, just as you would in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II). Keep your inner back thigh lifted and draw your tailbone toward the back foot for stability and support. Now engage your bandhas and activate the bhujapida action as you clasp the right foot with your left hand. Initiate the twist and spread your chest to the sky.
You've learned the separate actions, but it's time to let go of that focus and allow yourself to open viscerally to the pose. Try to relax in the action. Soften the awareness you' ve put on the individual details competing for your attention and experience the union of intention, action, and grace in your body as it radiates from the inside out. It is this inner transformation that is the state of yoga.