Blueprint for Change
For Darren Rhodes, yoga teacher and founder of Yoga Oasis in Tucson, Arizona, yoga is more than a means of unwinding; it's a tool for observing unhealthy patterns and working to transform them. Rhodes has witnessed such transformation in his own body: As a teen, he was diagnosed with scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, that left him in pain most days. He describes the feeling as "an eagle's talons wrapped around the muscles on the right side of my spine." Years of yoga helped him reduce the curvature from what was once 40 degrees to less than 10 degrees. "I've learned that my practice is more potent than my pattern," he says.
Rhodes's message is simple yet powerful: When you become aware of unhealthy patterns in the body, you can awaken to the possibility of change. A skillful, conscious yoga practice provides the opportunity for taking an unhealthy habit and creating a new one that better serves you.
This sequence of sidebends and twists asks you to investigate your unhealthy habits and patterns instead of following them blindly. Rhodes points out that the tendency in these poses is to focus on the end result, such as the depth of the twist or the sexiness of the sidebend. But doing so can move the hips and legs out of alignment, which is destabilizing and puts you at risk for injury.
To counteract this tendency, he suggests that you first align the lower body, pause, and then move into the sidebend or twist. By pausing and taking a moment to become conscious of your alignment before you twist, you'll find the sweet spot in the pose. You may not go as deeply into the poses, but you're more likely to experience the benefits they have to offer. "These aren't flashy poses," he says, "but they hold the possibility of yielding deep calm and relaxation. To me this practice isn't about external accomplishment but about making a shift to a more internal state." He adds that applying awareness and discipline to your alignment can, at times, feel less gratifying since keeping the lower body stable can limit how far you can twist or bend the upper body. But he insists that the tradeoff is worthwhile because you'll feel more balance in your nervous system. You might even correct a deeper habit that's causing you pain or suffering, like yoga did for Rhodes. "If I did twists unconsciously, it would make my back worse. But I consciously bring my scoliosis to the twist, and knowing what pattern I'm working with allows me to stay pain-free," says Rhodes.
Before You Begin: To create the heat and flexibility you'll need in the side body and hamstrings, move through two to three rounds of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) and then take Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I), Utkatasana (Chair Pose), Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II), Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose), and Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III).
Indudalasana (Standing Crescent Pose)
By practicing Indudalasana (Standing Crescent Pose), you will create openness in both sides of the body. When you press down evenly through your legs, you will create the strength and unity in your lower body that you'll call upon again in Parivrtta Paschimottanasana (Revolved Seated Forward Bend).
From Tadasana (Mountain Pose), inhale, and reach both arms out to the sides until they are parallel to the floor. On an exhalation, roll your thumbs away from one another so that your biceps and inner forearms rotate up and your palms open to the sky. On an inhalation, bring your arms overhead. Place your palms together and overlap your thumbs.
Reach the arms up and back. Notice if your ribcage has moved forward, bringing an unintentional backbend to the pose. If it has, shift your gaze down and move the tops of your thighs and the base of your sternum in toward your back body.
Exhale and extend your torso to the right and your hips to the left. Notice if you are unconsciously rolling the left shoulder forward and the right shoulder back. Resist this movement by drawing the left hip back. This may mean that you don't bend as far into the pose, and that's OK. Squeeze the legs together and press down through the feet. Notice that the left foot naturally wants to get lighter. Put extra awareness into pressing the left foot down with as much effort as the right foot. Scoop the tailbone to bring the low back into a neutral position. Finally, move the left scapula more firmly toward the middle of the back by engaging the muscles along the inner and outer shoulder blade. Hold for one minute on each side and release.
Parighasana (Gate Pose)
Parighasana (Gate Pose) is another powerful sidebend that requires a lot of strength in the abdominals and arms. It opens the backs of the legs and the intercostals, the muscles between the ribs.
Come to kneeling. Extend your right leg out to the side and point your right foot. The tips of the toes might touch the floor, but don't worry if the four corners of the foot do not. Align the left hip over the left knee and press the top of the left foot down into the mat. Press the right heel down and, without moving the foot, energetically draw it in toward the left knee to firm your foundation. Resist the tendency to roll the inner right knee toward the floor; this action puts uneven pressure on the hamstring and kneecap. Instead, externally spiral the right leg. Draw the middle of the right buttock forward in the direction of your pubic bone.Once your lower body is aligned, pause for a moment. When you move the upper body into the pose, the tendency is for the right hip to shift back in space and the right toes to angle forward, and this makes the hamstring vulnerable to injury. Instead of giving in to the body's unconscious pattern here, extend the right toes in line with the right knee and actively draw the middle of the right buttock toward your pubic bone as you pull the inner right thigh back toward the back of your mat. Make a commitment to keep your lower body alignment intact even as you bend and twist the upper body. Don't allow the movement of the upper body to overtake the lower body in an effort to get deeper into the pose. Make your actions skillful instead of habitually going for the deepest form of the pose.
Next, stretch both arms out away from the shoulders until they are parallel to the floor. Reach your right fingertips and your ribcage to the right. Turn the right palm down and place it flat on the floor to the inside of the right foot. Breathe into your right side body, especially between the bottom rib and the crest of the right hipbone. If your right side feels spacious and the right hamstring invites a deeper stretch, flip the right hand over, bringing the back of the right hand to the floor. Extend your left arm until the left bicep is alongside the left ear. If this is your edge, keep the left arm parallel to the floor. If your right palm is facing up and you're feeling comfortable, lower the left arm until, eventually, the left palm rests on top of the right palm.
As in Standing Crescent Pose, the challenge here is to resist the urge to collapse the torso toward the floor. Instead, hug the arms and legs toward the midline, which will give you more power to twist, even if you can't bend as far. Keep the head aligned evenly between the arms. Gaze straight ahead. From the left fingertips, pull the left shoulder blade in toward the thoracic spine (middle of the back). To get the ribs to move the torso into the twist, you need to move the lungs. Inhale, and think about filling the right lung more than the left. Imagine the right lung moving forward. Exhale, and resist the forward momentum by energetically keeping the right shoulder moving back. Think about inhaling your inner body into the twist while resisting with your outer body. Hold for one minute and switch sides.
Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose)
Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose) is a deep twist where you'll create the flexibility in the hips, chest, and shoulders to move closer to the final pose. Take a wide stance. Extend your arms straight out from your shoulders. Bring your ankles under your wrists. Then step your feet closer together by two to three inches. Turn your left foot out at a 90-degree angle. Turn your right foot in at a 60-degree angle. Bring your hands to your hips and pivot your hip points to the left until they are facing your left leg. Press your feet down and apart. Engage your thigh muscles to draw your kneecaps up.
Reach your right arm up alongside your ear. Slide your left thumb into your outer left hip crease so that your fingers touch your outer thigh. With your thumb, deepen the crease as you fold forward. Place the right fingertips on a block or bring them to the floor outside of the left foot. To create strength and stability in the hips and firmly anchor the twist, combine the following three actions: Press through the inner edge of the left foot, draw the outer left hip back, and scoop the tailbone forward.
Take a moment to breathe and consider your next move. Are you in alignment with what matters here, or are you focusing on the end result? If you are focusing on getting a deep twist, you might notice that your left hip has shifted forward and the torso has drifted over the right leg with the crown of the head pointed toward the upper right corner of the mat. Instead, create a straight line from your hips to your head so that the torso is parallel to the long edge of the mat. Take your gaze to the inside of your left foot.
To generate leverage for the twist, push the right fingertips down and toward the front foot. Extend the left arm toward the sky. Notice if the left hand wants to move toward the back edge of the mat. If that happens, the shoulder joint will move out of alignment. To resist that pattern, spread the fingers of the top hand and press the palm forward without moving it, as if pressing against an imaginary wall. As the hand energetically presses forward, feel the top of the shoulder draw back. Hold for up to one minute on each side.
Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)
This final preparation for Parivrtta Paschimottanasana quiets the mind. Paschimottanasana is a great way to create an empowered symmetry. Plus it gives you a deep spine and hamstring stretch that you're going to need for the final pose.
From Tadasana, sit on your mat with your legs outstretched. Squeeze the legs together. Draw the lower back in and up. Make the inner edges of the feet flush. Extend the big toe and second toe straight up, and keep the outer toes spreading evenly to the sides.
Inhale, and reach your arms overhead. Exhale and take your hands to your feet. If you can't reach your feet, use a strap. Press down with your hands and lift up through your shoulders. Resist the urge to dive your head and shoulders down toward your shins. Doing so will force you to round your upper back.
This pose provides a great opportunity to practice "not doing." Paschimottanasana builds a natural patience for observing the patterns of tension in the spine. To lengthen the upper back, press down with your hands and lift your shoulders up and apart. Lift the inner and outer edges of your shoulders evenly so that the shoulder blades don't slope or round off the back.
Press your tailbone down and lift your low belly in and up. Bring your awareness to your ribcage. Notice if you are tempted to jut the ribs forward toward the thighs as a means of bringing your forehead closer to the shins. Instead, actively lift the front of the torso away from the thighs and root the thighbones down into the mat. Remember, if your goal is to get to an image of a "finished pose," then your awareness of what's happening in the pose right now will go out the door.
Press your feet into your hands and create resistance by pulling your hands against your feet. This pressing and pulling will engage your legs and lengthen your spine, respectively. Actively squeeze your legs together, like you did in Standing Crescent Pose; this action is key to aligning the hips in the final pose. Bend the elbows away from each other. Hold the pose for at least one minute before moving into the next pose.
Parivrtta Paschimottanasana (Revolved Seated Forward Bend)
Parivrtta Paschimottanasana (Revolved Seated Forward Bend) is unlike most other twists. In asymmetrical seated or standing twists, such as Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose) or Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose), you press into your elbow and knee for leverage. That leverage allows you to go deeper into the twist. In contrast, Parivrtta Paschimottanasana requires you to extend both legs and use only the contact of your forearm against your shin for leverage. You must move the inner and outer bodies in ways that are both subtle and significant.
From Paschimottanasana, straighten your arms and lift your chest. Draw your lower belly in and up. Squeeze your legs together. This action will create a sense of oneness that roots the hips and protects the sacroiliac joint. Before you twist, take a moment to observe how you are approaching the movement. Notice if you're tempted to muscle your way into the pose. If you force your body past its limit, it will fail at the weakest point. In this pose, the most vulnerable point is typically the lower back.
Bring your fingertips to the floor outside of your shins. Hinge at the hips slightly. Your back stays long. Take the right forearm to the outside of your left shin and hold on to the outer left foot. Firmly press the right elbow into the left outer shin (below the knee). If possible, place the right elbow on the floor.
Here is one place where you can use the body's natural penchant for misalignment to your advantage. As you move into the twist on the left side, the right leg nat-urally wants to inch forward. Allow that movement. It will allow the right elbow to sink three inches closer to the floor on the outside of the left shin. Nestle the right elbow and left shin together to form a vice grip that will give you the power to twist your torso. Once you have your elbow in position, draw the right leg back and stretch the left leg forward so that your feet are flush.
Now catch the top of the right foot with your left hand. Shift your head back and extend the crown of your head toward the top of your feet. Twist your abdomen and chest toward the sky. You may not be able to get your head underneath your left bicep, but you can work on this pose by being in the pose.
The subtlety of the pose comes from the movement of the lungs. On an inhalation, move the right lung toward the left thigh. Exhale and draw the left lung back toward the back ribs. Resist the urge to twist deeper on the exhalation when the ribs and vertebrae are more compressed. The pose will yield more if you twist on the inhalation and anchor down through the sitting bones on the exhalation. Continue to breathe as if the lungs were rotating up toward the ceiling. As you do, resist the twist with the shoulders. Your left inner shoulder blade presses back toward right thigh, and your right shoulder presses in toward the right chest. Hold a minute or less on each side.
Catherine Gutherie is a writer, editor, and yoga teacher in Boston.