The universe moves in many ways: straight lines, curves, circles, ellipses, and apparently chaotic patterns. But when I contemplate the movement of things within and without myself—something I do fairly often as a yoga teacher—the pattern I encounter most frequently and ubiquitously is the spiral. The word spiral comes from the Latin spira, meaning to coil, and these coils are everywhere. From the immense Spiral Nebula to the minute spiraling strands of DNA, all of creation simultaneously spins and soars, twirling and swirling in a grand cosmic dance.
In yoga, no poses so clearly embody the essence of the spiral as twists do.You can find twists within every category of pose: standing, seated, inverted, and reclining. They are powerful cleansing poses, working deeply on the internal organs in a "squeeze-and-soak" action. As you squeeze a sponge to rid it of dirty water, the twists squeeze the abdominal organs, forcing out toxins and waste. Then when you release the twist, fresh blood rushes into those organs, bathing the cells with oxygen and nutrients.
Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose) is an intense twist and, in my opinion, the most difficult of the basic standing poses. It challenges the practitioner's flexibility, strength, sense of balance, and presence of mind. Since this is a difficult asana for even the most experienced practitioner, some intermediate steps can help you learn to better perform the actions of the pose.
You'll need a chair for this first variation. Begin by standing in Tadasana with your chair about 2 feet to your right and slightly behind you, facing the same way you are. With an inhalation, step or jump the feet about 4 to 4 1/2 feet apart and extend your arms out to the sides, parallel to the floor, palms down. Then place your hands on your hips and turn the right foot out 90 degrees. Raise your left heel and turn it out so that it's parallel with the right foot. Revolve your hips 90 degrees to the right so that they face squarely in the same direction as your front foot (or as close to that alignment as you can get). Bringing your left and right hips equidistant from the wall is the ideal alignment because it allows you to balance the stretch evenly along your spine.
To help you square your hips fully, roll the back thigh inward so that your left kneecap faces in the same direction as your feet. To help you balance, step your left foot a little to the left so that it's directly behind your left hip instead of behind your right heel. Move the chair as necessary so that the center of your right foot is placed in front of the center of the chair.
Balance evenly on the inner and outer edges of your feet. Stretch your back leg by pressing your front thigh muscles (quadriceps) into the thigh bone (femur) and the femur into the hamstrings as you draw the femur upward toward your hip socket. Without relinquishing any of the actions of the back leg, move your tailbone forward toward the pubis and lift the front of the hip bones to elongate the front of the spine.
Now you're ready to bend your right knee to form a right angle. Align the knee directly over the right ankle and adjust your chair so that the center of the front edge of the chair seat touches your outer right knee. Then place both hands on your right thigh, press down on the thigh, and lift your abdomen up away from your groins to intensify the height of the front of the lumbar spine. In this lunge position, the stretch on your left thigh is likely to be powerful. We spend so much time sitting and walking that for most of us the hip flexors are quite tight and limit the freedom of the spine in any kind of back-arching postures. Practicing this lunge will help you to open your front groins and gain mobility in your hips.
Maintaining the lift through your spine, turn your belly to the right and lean forward to bring your left elbow onto the chair, so that the elbow touches your outer right knee. (If your elbow won't reach the chair, put your left hand on the chair. Don't proceed to more difficult variations or to the final pose until you can put your elbow on the chair.) Lay your left forearm on the chair seat perpendicular to the side of your right knee. Grasp the chair back with your right hand.
Keeping your right buttock level with your right knee, lift and expand your ribs. Raise your left thigh—especially the inner thigh—toward the ceiling.
Balance your spine by making sure that you're not leaning toward or away from the chair. (Your head and tailbone should align directly over the center line between your front foot and your back foot.) Now press your left elbow into the chair seat and against your right knee, and, at the same time, press against the chair back with your right hand to twist your torso deeply to the right. Relax your belly and equalize the length on both sides of the body to maximize your twist.
In this position, the strength and actions of the legs provide the stable base that frees the spine to twist. At the same time, the strength and actions of your arms help to generate the twist of the spine. Hold the pose for 30 to 60 seconds. To come back up, strengthen the lift of your left thigh, press the right foot into the floor, and, with an inhalation, lift the left elbow and the torso and straighten your right leg. Move your chair and do this supported variation of Parivrtta Parsvakonasana on the other side.
A Stable Base
Now that you've gotten a first taste of the twist, let's give some deeper attention to the base of your pose. In the standing poses, the base for the spine is the pelvis, which is anchored and braced by the action of the legs.
In Parivrtta Parsvakonasana, it is particularly difficult to stabilize your back leg so that it can firmly support your pelvis. If you try to keep the heel down when you come into the pose, it is hard to square the hips and lengthen the spine evenly. But when you raise your heel to facilitate the alignment of the hips and spine, stability and balance become increasingly difficult to maintain. With only the ball of your foot on the floor, it is difficult to ground the leg firmly.
An effective way to lift the heel so that you can align the pelvis and spine while still grounding the back foot is to place your heel against a wall. Start by standing with a wall about 4 feet behind you. Allowing the knees to bend comfortably, place your hands on the floor on either side of your feet. Step back with your left foot until your heel meets the wall and the ball of the foot is on the floor about 2 to 3 inches away. (You can play with the distance of the ball of the foot from the wall. Different distances create different effects in the stretch and power of the back leg.)
Bend your right knee to 90 degrees and move your front foot as necessary until your right shin is perpendicular to the floor. Then lift your chest enough to take your hands from the floor and place them on your right thigh. Before you lift your chest fully, press your heel against the wall and lift your left femur strongly into your left hamstring. Lift the inner thigh more than the outer thigh. At the same time, be sure not to move your right thigh from its position parallel to the floor. Without losing any of the actions in your legs and feet, press your hands into your right thigh, bring your tailbone forward to draw your sacrum away from your lumbar spine, and lift the abdomen away from the groins. With the exception of having your left heel against the wall, you will be in the same position as you were in earlier.
Be aware, however, of the differences in your pose now that you can press the wall with your heel. With your back foot at the wall, the opening in your left groin is more intense and your left hip is less likely to sink toward the floor. When you stabilize that hip, you also stabilize the sacroiliac joints (where the sacrum connects to the pelvis). If you build from such a stable base, when you eventually use your arms and breath to create the twist, you will be able to direct their energy primarily toward rotating the spine. But if you aren't properly using your legs to stabilize your pelvis when you begin to use your arms to twist, the force of that leverage will shift your hips and sacroiliac joints as well as your spine. Your twist will be compromised, and you may strain the ligaments connecting your spine and pelvis.
Do the Twist
As you continue to lengthen your belly away from your groins by pressing your hands against your thigh, begin to revolve your lower abdomen toward the right. Roll your left lower ribs across the top of your right thigh as much as you can. With a strong exhalation, reach across your chest with your left arm to bring your left elbow to the outside of your right knee. Press your left elbow against your right knee without disturbing the knee's alignment over the ankle, and, on an exhalation, turn your abdomen still further to the right. For the moment, place your right hand on your sacrum.
Next, slide your upper left arm further down your leg so that, ideally, there is no space between the back of your left armpit and your top outer right knee. If there is, try lifting and turning the belly and chest one or two more times to revolve the torso and reposition your arm against your leg.
If your right knee is close enough to the back of your left armpit, you will be able to stretch your arm and place your left hand on the floor. The more deeply you have positioned your arm on your outer knee, the closer your hand on the floor will come toward your right foot. If you are not able to turn enough to have your knee high up on your arm, you will be unable to place your hand on the floor. In that case, keep your elbow bent at a right angle and your palm extended, facing the wall.
To maximize the action on the abdominal organs and receive the full benefit of the pose, it is important to have your arm against the outer bent knee. If the twist is difficult and you are unable to bring the arm around enough to catch it against the outer knee, you may be tempted to put your hand on the floor inside the foot, or perhaps to put your hand on the floor outside your foot with your arm in front of your knee or shin instead of outside your knee. Of course, you can do a twist that way—the action on the trunk will be akin to Parivrtta Trikonasana—but you will lose the deeper action on the abdominal organs that is one of the significant differences between the two asanas and one of the most important benefits of Parivrtta Parsvakonasana. If you can't catch your arm outside your knee, continue to use the chair so you can obtain the additional leverage.
In the midst of all this writhing about, you may have lost the stability of your base in the legs. It's quite likely that your left leg has gone slack and your heel has lost its pressure against the wall, and that your right hip has shifted so that the thigh is no longer parallel to the floor. To keep this from happening, you must reestablish the actions and alignments of the pose before each movement of your arms or torso. Reenergize the back leg by lifting your thigh and pressing your heel against the wall, and adjust your front thigh so it remains parallel to the floor. These adjustments will give you better leverage for your twist—which, in some respects, has only just begun.
Arming Your Twist
With your back heel anchored to the wall, your torso lifted and turned over your thigh, and your arm or armpit placed on the outer side of your bent knee, the stage is set to move to the next level of your twist. As if you were throwing a ball underhand, take your hand from your sacrum, lower your hand toward the floor in front of you, and stretch your arm in a broad, circular movement over your head. Bring your right arm in line with your right temple, palm facing the floor. Contract your inner right deltoid (the frontal portion of the muscles that cap your shoulder joint) and draw the inner upper arm toward the inner shoulder to set the arm bone well into the socket. From the top of the left buttock reach toward the wall with the back leg and press your heel powerfully into the wall. Then lengthen your right side ribs away from your waist, creating space between each rib. Maintain the grip on the inner deltoid and stretch your right side ribs, outer shoulder blade, and right arm away from your hip as much as possible. Draw the outer elbow into the inner elbow to open the elbow joint. Elongate the inner and outer wrist evenly, stretch your palm, and reach out through your fingertips.
Make sure you are keeping the pelvis squared forward. Then, with the left buttock and leg moving toward the wall and the right side of the body and arm reaching away from the wall, you will create tremendous length in the spine. This length in turn creates space in your body that allows you to deepen your twist.
At this point, your left arm is against the outside of your right knee; depending on your degree of flexibility and body shape, the arm is either bent or stretched straight with your hand on the floor. Go on lengthening the spine through the actions of your left leg and right arm. Now pull your left shoulder blade down toward your kidney without compressing the left side ribs. Draw that shoulder blade toward your spine, and press your left arm firmly against your right knee. Increasing that pressure and the elongation of your spine, exhale strongly and spiral up and out of your hips, lengthening and turning as deeply as possible.
When you are fully in the pose, your breathing will be somewhat constricted because of the pressure on your abdomen and diaphragm. Avoid using your abdominal muscles to try to turn your body; instead, relax them and relax your breath. Soften your throat, turn your head, and with your right arm aligned over your temple, look up toward your inner right elbow. Let the turning of your head evolve naturally from the turning of the spine, so that there is no compression or discomfort in your neck.
The Full Pose
The variation with your heel against the wall is pretty close to the completed pose, the difference being that in the "final" pose the heel of your back foot is on the floor. But this seemingly small change makes a huge difference. In the first place, you'll find it challenging to keep your heel grounded as you come into the pose. When you do manage to keep the heel down, it is very difficult to square the hips and therefore difficult to balance and lengthen the spine evenly. Furthermore, with the heel on the floor, you'll need even more flexibility to bring the arm to the outside of the knee.
All in all, keeping the heel down makes a challenging pose even more challenging. But what the heck! Yoga is one challenge after another anyway, right? So if you have a handle on the preceding variation at the wall, let's go on to the "final" step in Parivrtta Parsvakonasana.
Stand in Tadasana. With an inhalation, take your feet 4 to 4 1/2 feet apart and stretch out your arms parallel to the floor, palms down. As you exhale, turn your left foot in 60 degrees and turn your right foot out 90 degrees. Draw the quadriceps onto the thigh bones and up toward the hips. Move the left thigh bone back and, from the top of the left calf, stretch your left heel into the floor. Pressing the left heel into the floor, exhale and bend your right knee until your right thigh is parallel to the floor and your right shin perpendicular to the floor. Inhale, keeping the left heel grounded, and, as you exhale, bring your hands to your hips, rotate your left thigh inward, and turn your hips to the right. As you revolve your hips, press back on your inner left thigh and down on your outer left heel to stabilize the back leg. On your next inhalation, move your tailbone toward your pubis and lift the front of your hip bones. Maintaining the action of the back leg, press your right hand into your right thigh and lift the abdomen away from the groins. With an exhalation, turn your left front hip bone toward your right front hip bone.
Next, roll the top of the right thigh inward with your hand as you press down, lift your left ribs, and, with a strong exhalation, bring them across the top of the right thigh. Stretch your left arm, and place your left armpit against the outside of your right knee. Place your left hand on the floor as near to the right foot as you can; if you can't reach the floor, keep the left elbow bent with the arm against the outer right knee.
You may find that even though you could bring the left arm fully around to the outer right knee with the heel raised against the wall, you are unable to do so with the heel down. If that's the case you now have a choice. Although either choice compromises the depth of your twist a little, you will probably find that practicing both ways will eventually enable you to twist more deeply.
In the first choice, you allow your back heel to lift just enough to position your left armpit on the outside of your knee. (You're giving up a little bit of stability to improve the alignment of your hips and spine.) Take your right arm overhead and lift and lengthen your spine. Press your left arm against your outer right knee and turn your torso. When you've deepened the twist as much as you're able, lift your left femur strongly into your left hamstring and your left groin to the level of your right groin. Maintain the twist and roll the outer left calf back and around toward the inner calf. At the same time, stretch from the top of the calf into the outer left heel to lengthen the heel toward the floor.
In the second approach, keep the heel down and revolve the hips and torso as much as possible, working to square the hips and evenly elongate your spine as best you can. (Here you may lose some of the alignment to maintain stability.) With your heel on the floor, bring the left elbow to the outside of the right outer knee. (If that isn't possible, work with the chair.) Ground and stabilize the back leg by lifting the femur into the hamstring and pressing into the heel. Then press your right hand on your thigh to lift your lower ribs, and, with an exhalation, press your left elbow into the outer right knee. Again reach back from the top of your calf and press your left heel into the floor. Now, turning your trunk, slip your left arm lower so that the outer knee contacts the arm higher up toward the armpit. Maintain your position for a couple of breaths and then, grounding and stabilizing the back leg with the heel on the floor, repeat the process. Continue in this manner until you've brought the left armpit as close to the outer right knee as possible while still keeping the left heel on the floor.
Once you've positioned your left arm outside your right knee and grounded your back leg—whichever method you used—bring your right arm over your head. As you did when practicing at the wall, extend your upper arm over your temple. To improve the alignment of your pelvis, press your right heel firmly into the floor, pull your right hip back away from your outer right knee, and draw that hip inward toward the center line of your body. Bring the right buttock bone more in line with the right heel, keeping your right thigh parallel to the floor. At the same time, intensify the grounding action of the back leg and the extension of the right side ribs and arm to lengthen your spine. Make sure your right knee is still aligned directly above your right ankle. Then draw your left shoulder blade down your back and toward your spine, sucking your back ribs deeply into your body, and lift your chest exuberantly away from your right hip. Keep the crown of your head and the tip of your tailbone directly above the line from your front-foot heel to your back-foot arch. As you lengthen the ribs and right arm in one direction and the right hip, sacrum, and left leg in the other, press your left arm into your right knee and roll the left side of your breastbone upward until your heart and head are turned to face the sky.
I've seen a lot of films of rockets blasting off. (I'd love to see the real thing some day.) As the rockets hurtle heavenward, trailing tongues of fire in an exhalation of smoke and thunder, they begin to spin slowly, gradually transforming into slivers of light as they spiral upward on their mission of discovery into the limitless night of outer space. For me, doing twists is a lot like launching rockets. Your legs and feet make firm contact with the earth, creating in your hips a stable base. Your torso, propelled by the power of your departing breath, lifts off from the launch pad of your hips. The energies generated in your arms propel your body through space like some great ship soaring aloft into the night sky. Every bit of you—trunk, muscle fibers, breath, subtle energies, and consciousness—spirals on your own mission of discovery, simultaneously outward and inward into the clear and limitless light of inner space.
John Schumacher is a certified senior Iyengar teacher and longtime student of B.K.S. Iyengar. Schumacher directs the three studios of the Unity Woods Yoga Center, which serves over 2,000 students each week in the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.