Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose) has a great back story. According to Hindu mythology, the preserver god Vishnu appeared in the form of a fish, Matsya, to save the world from a great flood. The pose named for him is reminiscent of a salmon twisting as it swims upstream, says Ray Long, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and yoga teacher.
Also called Seated Twist Pose, it is a deep twist that can bring energy into your spine while improving postural and body awareness. “When done correctly, this deep, seated twist has the power to transform your spine,” says Carol Krucoff, co-author of Healing Moves: How to Cure, Relieve and Prevent Common Ailments with Exercise. “The posture also nourishes the internal organs, because alternately compressing and stretching the torso is thought to increase circulation to those areas.”Section divider
Half Lord of the Fishes basics
Sanskrit: Ardha Matsyendrasana (ARD-ah Mats-yun-DRAHS-uh-nah)
ardha = half
matsya = fish
indra = king
Pose type: Twist
Targets: Core, flexibilitySection divider
“[Ardha Matsyendrasana] increases spinal rotation, boosts blood flow to the disks, and builds strength and flexibility in the erector spinae muscles, the tiny muscles that support the spine,” says Carol Krucoff. Half Lord of the Fishes is good for stretching your outer hips and thighs, opening your shoulders and chest, building strength in your upper back, lengthening your spine, and stretching the front of your thighs.
It can also help stimulate digestion. In Ardha Matsyendrasana, everything within the torso is getting a little squeeze—the stomach, intestines, and kidneys—which can encourage digestion and elimination. Bonus: your shoulders, hips, and neck also receive a deep and welcome stretch.
Other Half Lord of the Fishes perks:
- Improves posture and counteracts the effects of sitting
- May help relieve constipation by moving and stimulating your lower abdominal area
- Begin seated in Sukhasana (Easy Pose). Move your knees closer together and cross your right knee on top or your left, bringing your feet alongside your hips.
- Rotate at the hip to bring the right knee up. Place the sole of your right foot on the mat outside of your left knee. Press down with your right big toe mound and keep your right hip grounded. (If crossing both legs isn’t accessible to you, practice with your bottom leg extended rather than flexed.)
- Anchor yourself with your sitting bones. Place your right hand to the floor outside of your right hip for support.
- Inhale and raise your left hand to the ceiling, lengthening your spine. Exhale and bring your left elbow down and across the midline of your body to the outside of your right knee.
- Press your knee and elbow together to create some resistance. Inhale to lengthen and exhale to twist deeper.
- Turn your head to the right, looking past your right shoulder. Make sure you don’t strain your neck.
- Breath as you hold the pose, lengthening on each inhale and gently twisting a bit more with each exhale.
- To exit the pose, inhale to reach the right arm up and unwind the body. Exhale to release back to center. Repeat on the other side.
Explore the pose
Take this pose—and any spinal twist—slowly and carefully. To avoid compression and injury, yoga teacher Carol Krucoff says it’s important that you create length in the spine before and during the twist. Press down with your sitting bones and stretch up, extending the length of your spine. If it helps, picture a central axis running through your torso from your pelvic floor to the top of your head.
If you want a deeper shoulder opener, twist until your right shoulder is in front of your left knee. Bring your right arm down, under the knee, and reach through toward your back. Bring the left hand and arm behind your back, and clasp your hands together.
- If your shoulders are tight, instead of pressing your elbow against your lifted knee, hold your knee with your hand or wrap your arm around the raised leg and hug the thigh to your torso.
- If you are struggling to breathe deeply, back out of the twist a bit and slow your breath down.
- Avoid or modify this pose if you have knee, hip, or back pain, or injuries in these areas.
- For support, sit on a blanket.
Half Lord of the Fishes variations
Half Lord of the Fishes Pose with relaxed arms
Instead of bringing your left elbow to your right thigh, wrap your left forearm around your right shin, bringing your knee inside your elbow.
Half Lord of the Fishes on a chair
Sit on a chair with your legs crossed. Lengthen your spine and twist toward your top leg. Hold onto the sides of the seat, the armrest, or the back of the chair.Section divider
Preparatory and counter poses
Stretch your hips and practice twists before practicing Half Lord of the Fishes Pose.
Counter posesSection divider
Your body in Half Lord of the Fishes | Anatomy
Ardha Matsyendrasana creates the shape of a fish’s tail, with the bottom knee flexing and the hip externally rotating, reminiscent of a salmon twisting as it swims upstream, explains Ray Long, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and yoga teacher. The main effort of this pose involves turning the tail in the opposite direction of the upper body.
In the drawings below, pink muscles are stretching and blue muscles are contracting. The shade of the color represents the force of the stretch and the force of contraction. Darker = stronger.
The trunk flexes and rotates as you plantar flex the foot (press it into the floor). This action is a result of the contraction of the gastrocnemius and soleus complex. The shoulder of the arm that holds the foot abducts and externally rotates. This will draw the arm further forward and turn the body deeper into the twist.
The shoulder of the arm behind the back extends and internally rotates. Roll the shoulder forward to internally rotate the arm behind the back. Lift the hand off the back to engage the muscles that produce this action. This causes the lower part of the pectoralis major, the latissimus dorsi, the teres major, the front part of the deltoid, and the subscapularis muscles to contract. Attempt to straighten the elbow by engaging the triceps. Note that as the elbow extends, the body turns deeper into the pose.
The top leg knee is adducting, or moving across the midline. This means the abductor muscles (those that move the leg away from the midline) lengthen and stretch, which allow the knee to be drawn closer to the midline and thus turn the body deeper into the twist. Additionally, internally rotating the thigh stretches the deep external rotators of the hip. Ardha Matsyendrasana is one of the most effective poses for isolating these hard-to-access muscles.
Press the side of the bottom thigh into the mat to engage the tensor fascia lata and gluteus medius muscles. Tuck the tailbone down and under to activate the gluteus maximus and deep external rotators to roll the thigh outward.Section divider
Put Half Lord of the Fishes into practice:
Ready to put this twisting posture into practice? Here are a few flows to try:
About our contributors
Teacher and model Natasha Rizopoulos is a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, where she offers classes and leads 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner for many years, she became equally as captivated by the precision of the Iyengar system. These two traditions inform her teaching and her dynamic, anatomy-based vinyasa system Align Your Flow. For more information, visit natasharizopoulos.com.
Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a popular series of yoga anatomy books, and the Daily Bandha, which provides tips and techniques for teaching and practicing safe alignment. Ray graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and pursued post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, the University of Montreal, and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over 20 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters, and teaches anatomy workshops at yoga studios around the country.