Modern life provides a constant stream of intense stimulation. When we walk out the door, we're bombarded by sights, smells, sounds, and tactile sensations. Technology heightens the intensity of our fast-paced world—these days we can connect to others anytime and anywhere—but all of these external stimuli can leave us feeling disconnected from our inner life. And when we lack a strong and intelligent connection to our own inner being, we may feel fragmented or overwhelmed by all that we are bound to in our daily lives.
In the Yoga Sutra, the sage Patanjali codifies yoga practice into eight practical limbs. The fifth limb, pratyahara, teaches us to turn inward and withdraw from the senses. Pratyahara helps quiet the mind so that we can bear witness to our inner environment. It allows us to pause and to check in with what is real, valuable, and calling for our attention. This pause requires discipline because it's not always easy to get quiet and examine our habits, predispositions, gifts, and limitations. But when we do, we allow ourselves the opportunity to gain awareness and self-knowledge. If we can learn to skillfully listen through quiet practice, we can find our innermost voice and express it to the world. This integration of the inner and outer worlds is what allows us to live a life of empowerment and purpose.
Marichyasana II is a great pose for invoking the state of pratyahara. The pose combines the containment of a bind with the surrender of a forward fold. As you physically wrap and then fold into yourself in this pose, you invite a sense of stillness and quiet.
As you move through this practice, please remember that it may take several years to come into the final pose and that there is no rush to get there. The point is to gracefully transition from one pose into another with quiet awareness. Once in the pose, bow your head into a calm and quiet moment even as you are bound and wrapped up around yourself. If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere!
Before You Begin
Come into Balasana (Child's Pose), and take a few slow, deep breaths, setting your intention to quietly turn your attention inward. Move into Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) and then Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose). Lift into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) for at least five breaths, and finish your preparatory practice with a few rounds of Surya Namaskar B (Sun Salutation B).
Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)
Baddha Konasana introduces the forward fold and deep external rotation of the legs that are required in Marichyasana II. It's key that the external rotation happens in the hip joint and not in the knee. You should never feel knee pain in any of the poses in this sequence.
Begin in Dandasana (Staff Pose) with your legs stretched out in front of you. Draw your right knee into your chest and hug the shin so that your calf and your hamstrings connect firmly. (I'll refer to this position throughout the sequence as as "closed knee.") Keeping the knee closed and without any movement in the knee joint itself, begin to rotate your right thighbone externally. Sense the rotation happening deep inside the hip joint. Bring the right heel toward your right inner groin, keeping the inner ankle long and the foot engaged, and rest your outer thigh on the floor. Repeat on the left side.
Place the soles of your feet together, hold your ankles, and lift up through your spine to open the chest. As your chest lifts, press the feet into each other to pack the top of thighbones into the pelvis. Your outer hips, thighs, and sitting bones will root down as you lift the pelvic floor and belly. From this grounded and engaged place, begin to bend into the forward fold, moving your forehead to the floor. Keep the front of your spine long and your breath deep and slow. Stay here for five deep breaths, noticing how folding forward begins to quiet the mind; let that set the tone for the rest of the sequence.
Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana (Bound Half-Lotus Seated Forward Bend)
This pose will further imprint key actions of Marichyasana II. Baddha Konasana introduced external rotation in the hips and a forward fold. In this asana, you'll "bind" the pose by reaching your arm behind you to hold onto your foot.
Begin in Dandasana. Draw your right knee into your chest, and externally rotate the thigh just as you did in Baddha Konasana. Keep the knee closed and the rotation coming from the hip joint. This time, bring your right foot to the very top of your left thighbone and fit the edge of your foot snugly into the space at the top of your hip crease. Keep the right foot active and the inner ankle long. The right thigh should rest comfortably on the floor—if it floats above the floor, return to Baddha Konasana, and revisit this pose in a few months or more. Keep your left leg active and left foot gently flexed.
Reach your right arm out to the right, and turn the thumb toward the floor. Rotate your inner elbow forward and then down; the arm will be internally rotated. Maintain this rotation and bend the elbow, wrapping the arm behind your back. Slide your forearm across your sacrum, and bind the pose by grasping your right big toe with your right hand.
Inhale, and lift your belly and chest. Widen your collarbones. Exhale, and fold forward over the left leg. Take your left foot with your left hand. Hug the outer edge of your left foot up into the outer left hip while extending the inner left heel away from the inner groin. Pause for a deep breath. Create a ripple of energy in your body to draw you deeper into the forward bend: Draw the pelvic floor toward the belly, the belly toward the heart, the heart toward the crown of the head, and the crown of the head toward your left foot to help you glide further into the pose. Rest your head on your shin. Hug your outer left pelvis back and down as you square your shoulders with the floor. Pause here for several breaths. Give yourself enough time to feel your body settle down into the floor. Take this moment to get quiet and turn your awareness inward.
Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja's Twist)
This twist will prepare you for Marichyasana II by warming up your spine and opening your side body, shoulders, and hips. Similar to the last pose, you'll place one leg in Half Lotus and bind that leg; to that shape you'll place the other leg in Ardha Virasana (Half Hero Pose), and add a twist.
From Dandasana, hug your left knee into the chest, placing your knee in a closed position. Rock your weight over to the right sitting bone, and place your left shin on the floor, tucking the top of your left foot next to your left hip. Snuggle your inner left heel against your outer left hip. Firm the top of the left foot into the floor, and bring your weight back to center. Hug your left outer shin in, and lengthen your inner ankle. Fan your toes out and down. Now pull your right knee in to externally rotate the thigh for Half Lotus. Slide the right foot into the left hip crease just as you did in Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana.
Bring your hands by your sides, and pause. Sense and observe the midline of your body. As you twist, imagine the midline drops down through your tailbone and into the earth and keeps you rooted like an anchor.
With your foundation firmly established, you are ready to move into the full pose. Begin to twist from the lower left side of your belly, turning your belly, chest, and shoulders, and gaze toward the right. Slide your right arm behind you to hold the right foot. Bring your left hand to your right knee; gently pull back on the knee, and continue to twist to the right. Keep your thighs about hip distance apart.
<p<pause, and anchor your tailbone and outer pelvis down while lifting your pelvic floor toward the crown of your head. Let the breath be even and full-bodied as you feel for a balanced and nurturing twist—not too much, not too little. Now, tune in to the inner experience, and spend a moment or two observing from the inside. Repeat on the other side.
Triang Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana (Three-Limbed Forward Bend)
From Dandasana fold your right leg into Ardha Virasana with your right shin hugging in toward the midline and the top of your right foot on the floor. Squeeze the outer ankle in toward the inner ankle. Spread your toes. Adjust your weight so that your sitting bones rest evenly on the floor and your hips are square. With your hands by your hips, lift through the inner spine, and open the chest. Keeping your spine long, begin to fold forward over your left leg. As you fold forward, feel your belly lift up and over your left thigh. Take the left foot with both hands, and bring your forehead to your shin.
With the next few breaths, refine the pose. Imagine your left leg as a straw. Suck the energy up the straw from foot to hip. Let that action draw the outer left hip back so that it's even with the right hip. As your left leg is being sucked into the hip joint, notice how that allows you to lengthen the left side of your spine (which tends to be congested and shortened in this pose). Finally, if you feel any pain in your right knee, you can place the sole of your right foot against your upper left thigh and take Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose) instead.
Now it's time to soften the mind. As you breathe into this forward fold, allow the upper thighbones and inner groin to release back and down. Inhale, and lengthen the front of your spine; exhale, and deepen the forward bend, drawing your shoulder blades down and into the back ribs. At the end of each exhalation, release the back side of your lungs into the body. Linger in that moment of release before you exit the pose, inviting the state of pratyahara to deepen with each breath.
We've arrived at the deeply bound twisted posture that perhaps struck fear in you when you walked into your first yoga class. But now that you've practiced the notes that make up the pose, you can put them all together into a beautiful symphony of action that's like a lullaby for your nervous system.
Begin with a few quiet breaths in Dandasana. Draw your right knee into your chest, and squeeze the knee closed. Externally rotate your thighbone, and place your right foot in a comfortable Half Lotus. From there, bend your left knee, and pull your left heel in toward your left sitting bone. Reemphasize that action by interlacing your fingers around the left shin to squeeze the leg into your trunk, becoming as compact as possible. This will pack the right foot—the Lotus foot—into the lower abdomen. It will also bring most of your weight onto your right sitting bone and outer thigh, enabling you to create a stable foundation.
Pause, and take a slow breath as you revisit the intention of drawing your attention inside. Slide your left shoulder inside your left leg, and begin to bow forward. Bring the back of your left armpit in front of your left shin. Extend the left arm out to the left, and internally rotate the arm to wrap it around your left leg and behind your back. Do the same internal rotation with your right arm as you reach it behind you. Bind the pose by clasping your hands together. Let your forehead rest either on the right knee or on the floor in front of your trunk. Close your eyes, and let your awareness hover on the breath. Notice how the shape of the pose encourages a deep sense of quiet.
Finish: End with an easy supine twist and Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose) with your pelvis on a block and your legs up the wall.
Stephanie Snyder is a vinyasa yoga teacher in San Francisco, California, and the creator of the Yoga Journal DVD, Yoga for Strength and Toning.