Most of us who do yoga yearn for more from the practice than just physical benefits—indeed, for more than just benefit to ourselves. But how can twisting our bodies, opening our hips, and straightening our legs make a difference in the wider world? How can lifting our chests help lift up this troubled planet?
Our asana practice can have a positive impact because it constantly asks us to become more sensitive, more conscious, more aware of ourselves—not just our bodies but also our minds, feelings, emotions, and our very nature. The real value of asana practice is that it can teach us to tune in and truly feel. As our sensitivity increases, life becomes more rich and enjoyable because we can taste the unique flavor of each individual moment. More important, we also become more aware of what moves us toward our dharma and what takes us away from it. This awareness makes us clearer and more peaceful, more able to elegantly handle life's endless dilemmas without feeling overwhelmed or fearful. As a result, we become more effective in all of our actions, and our presence begins to inspire and bring out the best in people around us.
The opposite of feeling is forcing. When we force, we cannot feel, and when we feel, we cannot force. The moment we start to force, we begin to lose awareness of the effect our efforts have on our nervous system, on the situation itself, and on the other people involved. Forcing makes us angry, inflexible, and intolerant; raises our blood pressure; and can eventually create heart problems. Feeling, on the other hand, makes us calmer, more receptive, more understanding, and healthier.
If we force ourselves into Ardha Matsyendrasana II (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose II), the spine will twist where it always has, where it needs the twist the least. In this pose, it is particularly easy to force the body while attempting to reach around the back and grab the shin. To the extent that the desire to do this comes from the ego's urge to satisfy itself—just to prove we can do the pose—it manifests itself as force. Feeling, on the other hand, allows us to tune in to the habitual tendencies of the body and sense which vertebrae are twisting and which are not. Cultivating feeling in Ardha Matsyendrasana II allows movement where there was stagnation, release where there was stiffness, and freedom where there was bondage. Only through intense inner sensitivity can the pose be done safely.
Just as force and feeling are opposites, so are violence and awareness. We often get angry, and sometimes even outwardly violent, when a situation arises that is not to our ego's liking, rather than using it as an opportunity to become more aware. But violence inevitably breeds more violence. The more forceful and violent we are, the further we move from feeling and awareness; consequently, the more violent we become.
I believe that much of the violence in our world comes from our lack of awareness, which has historically manifested itself as an unwillingness to see other people's points of view. When we pause and feel, we become more open and more receptive to the possibility that there are valid ways of thinking other than our own.
Sensitivity is often portrayed as weakness, yet it actually gives us the strength to lower our guard and say to an enemy, "Let's sit down and talk this through. How are you feeling? Why are you behaving the way you are?" People who have the security that comes with deep sensitivity and awareness have no desire to be violent; it is insecurity that contributes to violence. Through feeling, sensitivity, and awareness, we can bring insecurity and its resulting violence to an end.
What does all of this have to do with our individual practice of asanas like Ardha Matsyendrasana II? The awareness that we develop on the yoga mat, though seemingly small, affects all that is. As we become more aware in our yoga practice and in our lives, as we move away from force and violence and toward sensitivity, feeling, and awareness, we change our individual consciousness and actions. In turn, these changes influence the consciousness and the actions of everyone we meet. Slowly, we shift the direction the world is taking. As we practice each asana, whether it be a challenging twist like Ardha Matsyendrasana II or a simple standing pose, we have the opportunity to become the embodiment of peace and to make our practice a prayer for harmony in the world.
Lifting to Twist
Twists require us to lengthen the intervertebral muscles, and we can do this more safely if we soften them first. Because inversions allow the intervertebral muscles to release their all-but-constant work of overcoming gravity, poses like Sirsasana (Headstand), Ardha Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Half Handstand) with the feet on the wall, Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), and the variations of Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) are excellent preparations for Ardha Matsyendrasana II.
After you've warmed up with some inversions, begin to open your body for the twist you'll need in Ardha Matsyendrasana II. Sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose), with both legs straight out in front of you and your spine erect. Then, as you exhale, bend your right knee to place your right foot on top of your left thigh in Ardha Padmasana (Half Lotus Pose), bringing your right heel as close as possible to the inside edge of your left pelvic bone. Place your fingertips on the floor directly by the sides of your buttocks.
Tip your pelvis slightly forward so that your sacrum is perpendicular to the floor. If you have relatively stiff hamstrings, you'll find that your pelvis tips backward and you have to work hard to lift the lower back, which often strains it. To prevent this strain, sit on one or two firm, folded blankets; place just your sitting bones on the folded edge of the blankets, with your legs stretched out in front of you.
As you exhale, allow your groins and thighbones to release downward; at the same time, press your sitting bones into the floor. If your groins and thighbones are lifted in this pose (indeed, in any seated pose), the energy of the pelvis drops; deepening the groins is an essential part of the rooting actions that allow the pelvic energy to recoil upward. To deepen your groins, contract your quadriceps (front thigh muscles); then, as you exhale, imagine the crease where your leg meets your torso moving toward your sitting bones. Press your right ankle into your left groin to deepen the groin further, creating a more definitive connection between your thighbone and the earth.
On your next inhalation, lift the energy of the perineum toward your heart center. Pushing your fingertips into the floor, lift the sides of your waist into your front armpits. Maintaining this lift, add to it the lift of the back of your pelvis. Scoop the energy of the kidneys forward and up, lifting and opening your chest, then roll that energy up over the tops of your shoulders, down your shoulder blades, and back into the kidneys.
In all twisting poses, you have to properly lift your spine to avoid damaging it. Unfortunately, many practitioners try to move into these poses without this essential preparation. Extending the spine before twisting is critical because it creates space between the vertebrae; when you twist after creating this space, the rotation is distributed more equally between the different parts of your spine. If you twist without this lifting preparation, the parts of your spine that twist most easily will become hypermobile and vulnerable to injury, and the stiffer parts will remain unacknowledged and stiff.
Opening the Shoulders
Now that you've lifted your spine, hold your right knee with your left hand and use it to press your right heel into your left hipbone. Exhaling, twist your torso about 90 degrees to the right and reach your right hand behind your back, bringing your fingertips to the floor behind your left buttock. As you inhale, open your right chest; as you exhale, swing your right arm behind you and grasp your right foot from above. If you cannot hold your foot while maintaining an erect spine and an open chest, wrap a belt around your foot and hold the belt with your right hand.
Did you encounter difficulty when you tried to grasp your right foot? If so, how did you respond? Did you perhaps force so far that you felt pain or strain? Pain is often a reminder to use awareness, sensitivity, and incremental change—rather than force—to create new movement in your body. Any urge to complete a movement that your body is not ready for is the foundation of forcing. When the mind goes to where we think the body should be, instead of where it is, we lose our awareness of the present and ignite in the nervous system an aggressive, competitive, even warlike state.
Instead of forcing, reengage your sensitivity. See if you can feel the exact location of your blockages. Once you have found them, use your breath to help melt them away. Inhale deeply, consciously moving your breath into the blockage; as you exhale, draw out the tension and rigidity that prevents opening.
Now, as you grasp either your foot or the belt, exhale to reach your left palm forward to the big-toe side of your left foot, wrapping your fingers around the mound of the big toe. If you cannot reach the left foot with your left hand, wrap a belt around the arch of your foot and use the belt as an extension of your arm. Straighten your left elbow, pulling your spine away from your left foot. Simultaneously press the mound of the big toe into your fingers and pull it with your arm, particularly using the side back muscles (latissimus dorsi). These opposing actions will release tension in your lower back, open the hamstrings of your left leg, and move energy up your spine.
Press both shoulder blades toward your kidneys, and strongly lift the perineum and the pit of your abdomen to move the energy of your pelvis up into your heart center. On an exhalation, press your right wrist down toward the floor and, maintaining the grip on your right foot, try to straighten your right elbow. As you push down, notice that the action opens the front armpits, scooping them forward and up. Originate the twist deep in your lower back, allowing that movement to flow up to your upper back, your neck, and finally your head, turning them all to the right as far as they can go. As you turn your head to the right, keep directing your attention inside your body. Observe all the sensations and emotions that are churned up by the wringing action of the twist. This internal attentiveness will prevent you from forcing this twist.
To move deeper into the pose, grip your right foot more strongly while flexing your right ankle. This will push your right heel into your left ilium (hipbone), thus pressing the left ilium back. This movement of your left ilium back helps stabilize your sacroiliac joints so that the anatomical twist of your spine comes above them and not in the joints themselves. (I say anatomical twist to distinguish it from the energetic twist, which rises from the perineum and is centered more at the core of the body.) While doing twists, it is important to remember that the sacroiliac joints should not be torqued. Many yoga practitioners have unstable sacroiliac joints due to incorrect work in asanas. These joints are intended to be slightly mobile but held tightly in place by ligaments; if these ligaments become overstretched, it is very difficult to tighten them again. In this twist, you may allow the right buttock to move slightly back. This is a beginner's action that protects the sacroiliac joints by keeping the back of the pelvis in one plane; as you become a more advanced practitioner, however, you should learn to accomplish this by keeping the pelvis perpendicular to the extended leg.
A Deeper Twist
Both ardha baddha Padmasana and Ardha Matsyendrasana II stretch the pectoral (chest) muscles. This opening is important because tight pectorals create hunched shoulders and a sinking in the sternum. Hunched shoulders and a sunken sternum put weight on the lungs and the heart, and may in the long term lead to heart problems. The openings provided by these poses and similar twists expand the chest laterally, moving energy from its center into its sides and into the shoulders, and relieving the symptoms of collapsed, rounded shoulders, including hunching of the upper back.
Even more than Ardha Baddha Padmasana, Ardha Matsyendrasana II is an advanced pose in terms of the demands it makes on your shoulders and spine. To savor its benefits without risking injury, you need to use all you have learned so far about extending the spine and about twisting from feeling, not forcing.
Sit again in Dandasana, then bring your left foot into Ardha Padmasana. Pressing your fingertips into the floor strongly, lift the center of your palm powerfully to draw the energy of the earth into your arms. Use this energy to lift the sides of your waist into your front armpits, thereby extending your spine. Lift the kidney energy into your upper chest. Draw your shoulder blades down and apart. Press into your right heel and the ball of the foot, focusing on moving the ball of the big toe away while pulling your right arch toward the right groin. Contract your right quadriceps strongly, rotating your leg until the second toe points straight up and your kneecap faces the ceiling. Press your right knee down until the back of the knee presses into the floor. You will notice that the more strongly you press your right thighbone down into the earth, the more recoiling lift you will have in your spine.
Maintaining the lift in your spine, take your right hand back and press the fingertips into the floor behind your buttocks. Reach your left hand across your right thigh and press the fingertips into the floor next to your right knee. Pressing your left ankle into your right thigh to ground your right thighbone, lift your spine and twist to the right. In this position, take a deep inhalation, lifting the energy of the perineum toward your heart center. As you exhale, open your right chest to sweep your right arm behind you and grasp your left shin with your right hand. Then stretch your left hand forward, reaching over your toes to hold the ball of your foot. If you cannot reach your left shin with your right hand, wrap a belt around your shin and hold it instead. If you cannot hold your right foot with your left hand, wrap a belt around the center of the arch and hold the belt.
Whether you are holding your right foot or a belt, create a dialogue between your right foot and your left hand. Push with the balls of your right toes; at the same time, use the latissimus dorsi muscles under your left arm to pull the balls of the toes and push them down toward your heel. These actions further energize the left waist and help it to lift. They also create a lift in your spine and further energize and release your lower back.
Keeping your left shoulder blade moving down your back, slowly turn your head to the right. Twist your neck as far as possible and look over your right shoulder. Keep your eyes soft and your breath smooth and deep; lift energy from your pelvis with each inhalation and deepen your twist with each exhalation.
Intensity, Not Force
Moving into the intensity of Ardha Matsyendrasana II requires you to balance your actions with careful listening to the feedback from your body that comes in the form of feelings. As you practice asana, it's not a question of finding a balance between force and feeling; forcing is never appropriate. Rather, it is action and feeling that you have to balance. (Only when action becomes excessive does it become force.) Therefore, balancing action (or will) with feeling is the ideal way to move forward in a yogic life. This balance will do more for you than any amount of technical know-how about the postures.
The final details of Ardha Matsyendrasana II intensify the opening of the spine, chest, and shoulders, so be very careful not to work blindly as you complete this pose. Use your exhalation to root your sitting bones and your right thigh into the earth. As you inhale, feel the recoil of energy from your perineum toward your heart center.
Moving on an exhalation, take your left hand to your outer right heel, rotating your left upper arm externally so that your inner elbow faces directly to your right. Keeping this elbow straight, pull your right heel toward your hip and push the heel down into the floor while simultaneously drawing your left shoulder blade down your back. These actions will open your left chest. On your next exhalation, draw your left knee toward your right, bringing your knees as close together as possible. This will help deeply open your right chest.
Maintaining a long, even, fluid twist from your lower spine through your upper back, exhale to counterrotate your neck so that your eyes look at your right big toe. This opposition of twists releases tension in the upper trapezius muscles of the neck as well as in other muscles deep inside the neck. With each inhalation, visualize your heart center expanding into your chest and your armpits. With each exhalation, increase the pull of your left arm and the twist in your spine. You may feel your diaphragm contract as you attempt to move more deeply into the posture. This contraction leads to hardness in the breath and tension around the heart, so work to consciously release your diaphragm and widen it horizontally. To get the final drop of juice out of the pose, flex your right wrist, pushing the forearm into your kidneys and opening the chest just a little bit further.
If you are working at the edge of your capacity, hold this final part of the pose for only three to five breaths. If you are working well within your capacity, you can hold it for up to a minute. When you're ready, slowly release by swinging your left knee to the left and releasing your right hand. Then change sides.
As you practice this demanding pose, do not make the mistake of thinking that working intensely is the same thing as forcing. This is not so. Force happens when you lack true intensity, when you are not present in your body but instead are just working blindly. You have to work intensely but without force, finding a balance between intense concentration and wide awareness, integrating all parts of your being in the present moment. Then you can safely create new movement in your body and do something you have never done before.
Once you learn to do a powerful pose like Ardha Matsyendrasana II from feeling rather than forcing, you can easily see that the potential to work this way exists within every pose, whether simple or advanced. In each asana, you can find an inner awareness that leads to peace in your heart. When you do that, you join the effort to expand peace, one practitioner at a time, to encircle our beautiful yet delicate earth.